With constrained budgets and a decline in military headcount, cost-effective communication solutions with maximum availability take centre stage. Satellite professionals at the Milsatcom Middle East conference held in Abu Dhabi, examined the evolving relationship between governments/military establishments worldwide and commercial satellite operators, towards developing communications solutions for increasingly demanding operational requirements.
Examining the evolution of military satellite communications, Tareq Al Hosani, CEO of Al Yah Satellite Communications Company PrJSC (Yahsat), speaks of interoperability. He says military satellite communications need, “highly complex architecture spanning multiple applications with a common platform to allow simple integration and with mobility playing a key role.” He says that satellite operators must adapt to these changing needs that are driving the IP-based military networks.
There is need for real-time connection, Hosani says, with “information transfer between the field and command centre [taking place] without delay or loss and there is a need for highly reliable solutions and maximum availability.”
He adds, “Richer applications require higher bandwidth. There is also increasing focus on cloud computing offering a greater range of “on-demand” applications, with more security and ease of use, for end users. Lastly, we are seeing increasing pressure on military budgets resulting in the use of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) versus proprietary solutions. “
Bandwidth requirements, according to Hosani, are increasing at a rapid rate for military satellite communications (Milsatcom) use. Among the higher bandwidth drivers, in his view are “increasing dependence on communication – for instance, the need to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and the need for mobility and conferencing – among other requirements. UAVs, for example, require in excess of 8Mbps of data offload from the aircraft.” Hosani says, “There is more data being transferred given the increasing need for higher resolution images and video, where voice requires 32Kbps and video conferencing, for instance, requires in the region of 1Mbps. Moreover, what is important is the time-criticality of information transfer – data must be received in seconds.”
From reserving satellite capacity to ensuring ground support and executing field solutions to setting up secure network applications, governments, according to Hosani, are seeking end-to-end integrated solutions.
Proven reliability of satellite communication networks
The majority of logistical issues in military settings stem directly from the inability of information systems to provide accurate and actionable data. For militaries to be reliable, responsive and flexible, Dr. Leslie Klein, P.Eng. president and CEO of Canada-based C-COM Satellite Systems Inc, vouches for satellite-based communication networks, saying, “Satellite communication networks are proven to provide unmatched reliability with far fewer failure nodes than existing terrestrial solutions. ” He believes COTS VSAT equipment is essential to the survival of the modern day military allowing for a high degree of reliability in connecting critical areas such as ammo supply positions, hospitals, tactical warehouses, and distribution hubs.
Given tighter military budgets, the era of the $2,000 toilet seat and the $100,000 mobile satellite antenna, are clearly over. Dr. Klein believes that COTS VSAT technology products are less expensive, more readily available and have proven to be reliable for many military applications. He says that coupled with tighter budgets, the “increased demand for more and more bandwidth can be addressed more cost effectively by commercial satellite providers.”
He adds,“Ka-band will be a game changer in the commercial market place and it will impact the military much the same way. Low-cost, readily available, high-speed VSAT terminals (fixed, on –the-pause and in-motion) are being deployed in anticipation of the demand for these services.” C-Com, according to Dr. Klein, is working with a number of Ka-Band providers such as Viasat, Hughes, Yahsat, Avanti and others, to deliver COTS on-the-pause. In addition, advanced technology Ka-Band in-Motion products are also being developed for this market place.
With high-precision VSAT solutions that can fit in a suitcase and features that allow for easy assembling in minutes by one person and precision antenna pointing and long-life batteries than can be charged using solar panels, the commercial satellite industry has an array of next generation, state-of-the- art mobile satellite antenna technologies for use by governments on mission critical operations.
Growing opportunity of hosted payloads
Given the cost constraints being faced by governments across the globe and the unrelenting need for real-time communication, Tim Deaver, VP, Government Solutions, SES, believes there is a growing opportunity with hosted payloads. He explains the concept saying, “The term ‘Hosted Payload’ refers to the utilisation of available capacity on a commercial satellite to accommodate additional transponders, instruments or other space-bound items.
“By offering hosted payload opportunities, the customer is provided with frequent, timely and affordable access to space.” The Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) programme, for instance, will test a new type of wide field-of-view infrared technology for the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. CHIRP launched on board SES-2 in September 2011.
Of the advantages of using hosted payloads, Deaver says, “Hosting capabilities on commercial satellites can provide more affordable access to space then using dedicated spacecraft because the majority of costs are borne by the host spacecraft which decreases the cost / Kg for shared missions.” Equally significant is the nominal satellite manufacture process that is less than 36 months allowing for communications solutions that are both on time and on cost.
Early engagement for an effective hosted payload initiative
Underlying the importance of early engagement, Deaver says, “ The largest three operators account for over 130 spacecraft and with a typical 15-year lifetime, it would equal nine replacements per year.” He adds that, “not all satellites are candidates for hosting payloads either because the satellite is already too large or in the wrong location for your needs or has conflicting requirements from different customers.”
Underscoring the need for timing and synchronisation, Deaver believes that ideally, hosted payload procurement would occur prior to spacecraft manufacturing.
The advantages of shared satellites are many, says Deaver. He elaborates, “The “partner nation” can design / specify its own payload and can control it independently. The shared satellite model saves time, reduces risks, brings cost advantages and controls complexity. A transfer of knowledge to national teams for future operations and projects can be ensured. Also, partner nations can rely on the expertise and experience of a veteran satellite operator when making technical, programme and commercial choices. “
For hosted payloads to be an effective strategy going forward, Deaver believes there needs to be open dialogue between customers and operators. With real timelines and the need for payloads to be geographically and operationally compatible, he says, “Our business is a long-cycle business. The more we can find out about future requirements early, the better chance we have to modify our fleet to meet a client’s needs.” Given that the host operators are transparent capital-investment managers, he says, “We must make the business case. The commercial satellite industry is an infrastructure business at its core – metrics of return-on-investment is the key driver. Creating a capability to support the government will be driven by the business case it presents.”
The system, not technology, delivers capability
It’s the system, not the technology that delivers capability, believes Nikolaus Faller, VP, International Sales and Marketing, MENA, of Astrium. System Engineering underpins new capability. Explaining the crucial factor of the system, he says, “You may go shopping for an iPad but….It’s only a ‘window’ onto a diverse, complex and hybrid communications system. If that system is not ‘fit for purpose’, your iPad is useless.
“The latest generation terminals drive out weight and use satellite capacity more efficiently. Modular flexible military-off-the-shelf terminals and modems can help future-proof your system. Systems are becoming more complex and diverse, and to manage them efficiently requires advanced modular software.”
Governments, he believes, need to get the retrofit integration/performance trade off right early on. Also planners and decision makers need to “find a way to augment the communications system that you’ve already got onboard.”
With each piece of intelligence that can anticipate acts of terrorism, violations or man-made disasters being critical to protecting a nation, governments and their armed forces are looking for state-of the-art capabilities that give them an edge in the field, on the seas, in the air and in cyberspace. Satellite professionals are unanimous in their view that governments are, in the face of constrained budgets, looking towards the commercial satellite operators for highly responsive, need-based solutions.
Government use of commercial missions
- Proprietary government systems continue to be in use and new programmes are being launched (e.g. WGS, Skynet)
- However, high funding requirements coupled with financial austerity measures, are making these programmes increasingly difficult to commission for many governments
- National operators have been a traditional source of leased capacity supply to governments (e.g. Yahsat, StarOne, China Satcom)
- Increasingly, though, governments are showing willingness to buy from international operators to serve their domestic military needs (e.g. Xtar), offering more options in terms of quality, coverage and price
- In line with the commercial space, the hosted payload option for military missions is also gaining ground
- Given the financial pressures and typically limited needs in terms of transponders for most governments, this is a much more cost effective and viable option