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U.S. military turns to private sector for SATCOM capacity

Posted: February 17, 2011

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The U.S. Air Force awarded six companies more than $4.5 million in January and February to study commercial solutions for the military's Ka-band and X-band mobile communications needs, according to industry and government sources.

Artist's concept of the Inmarsat 5 satellite series, a three-spacecraft order placed with Boeing in August 2010. Each satellite will host a U.S. military communications payload. Credit: Boeing
The Defense Department is looking at commercial satellite communications systems as tight federal budgets could limit the Pentagon's ability to procure expensive government-owned spacecraft.

The Air Force signed study agreements with Space Systems/Loral, Boeing Satellite Systems Inc., Orbital Sciences Corp., Intelsat, Hughes Network Systems Inc., and U.S. Space. The contracts are worth more than $4.5 million.

The studies encompass augmented Ka-band and X-band capacity, communications-on-the-move for small terminals, and increased communications support to airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnassiance platforms. Intelsat's contract covers hosted payload opportunities on commercial communications satellites.

All of the agreements are for unprotected, or benign, communications.

The U.S. government currently leases about 80 percent of its communications capacity from commercial sources, according to Richard Pino, deputy director of communications and network programs at the Pentagon.

"The commercial marketplace for procuring commercial satellite technologies is maturing very rapidly, and in some cases may be eclipsing what the military can do," Pino said at a commercial space conference in Washington last week.

Pino said government-owned satellites should focus on nuclear-hardened communications, contested environments and anti-jamming capabilities. Commercial satellites can provide the bulk of everyday communications for the military.

Military satellite communications, or MILSATCOM, was ahead of commercial technology 15 years ago, but Pino said he believes industry can provide better benign communications than the government can today.

"I used to always think the role of commercial was to augment MILSATCOM," Pino said. "I'm unlearning what I used to think I knew. Commercial is here to stay."

The military has boosted its usage of dedicated hosted payloads and purchases of generic transponder bandwidth on commercial satellites in recent years. Hosted payloads are government-furnished instruments attached to satellites on an unrelated mission.

Boeing recommends more hosted payloads for the Air Force's MILSATCOM augmentation program, according to a company press release announcing its nearly $927,000 individual award.

"Boeing received orders for five hosted payloads in the past 18 months," said Craig Cooning, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems. "These are a win-win for the military, which needs the bandwidth, and the commercial SATCOM service providers, which benefit from a secondary revenue stream. Our partnership with commercial satellite industry and our legacy of government support will result in many creative approaches to assisting this country's men and women in uniform."

The Boeing 702 medium-power or high-power satellite design could host secondary payloads. Inmarsat ordered three high-power 702 spacecraft in August, and each of the satellites will carry a hosted Ka-band military payload, according to Boeing.

Intelsat spacecraft have also hosted U.S. military communications payloads.

Pino told an audience of industry leaders last week the Pentagon faces upcoming decisions on the expansion of MILSATCOM programs, increasing commercial transponder leasing, hosted payloads, and purchasing off-the-shelf communications satellites from a supplier like any other private sector operator.

The Pentagon is also considering leveraging long-term capital leases of satellites, which offer the control advantages of buying and is cheaper than repeatedly extending short-term transponder leases, Pino said.

The Air Force is ordering more Advanced Extremely High Frequency and Wideband Global SATCOM satellites to ensure military communications capacity through this decade after the cancellation of the Transformational Satellite Communications System, or TSAT.

The most recent AEHF satellite contract award to Lockheed Martin Co. was worth $1.4 billion. The spacecraft, named AEHF 4, would be ready to launch in 2017, according to the contract announcement in December.