SATCOM: Vital to Our Nation's Military and National Security

SATCOM: Vital to Our Nation's Military and National Security
U.S. Army photo by SGT Kimberly Hackbarth
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What do satellite communications have in common with strip clubs, biofuel, and giant African rats?  All represent examples of waste according to a stunning new report by Senator John McCain on indefensible defense spending.  As Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain’s report highlights billions in Pentagon waste, including:

  • $1 million for Department of Defense (DoD) personnel travel claim reimbursements for unauthorized spending at casinos and strip clubs 
  • $58 million for experimental biofuels to power Navy ships (at $30 per gallon!)
  • $1.4 million for the Army to study the bomb sniffing capabilities of giant African rats

Compared to these egregious examples, DoD’s purchase of satellite communications (SATCOM) is less likely to get the headlines.  At an annual cost of $1 billion, however, Chairman McCain’s report identifies DoD’s SATCOM procurement policies as wasteful and inefficient.  Congress should pay close attention to DoD’s upcoming SATCOM review – called an Analysis of Alternatives or AoA in Pentagon-speak – to ensure the warfighter (and the taxpayer) gets more value.

SATCOM provides over-the-horizon communications capability – voice, video, and data.  Demand for SATCOM continues to surge driven by increasing use of bandwidth-hungry Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.  Everyone from strategic planners to platoon sergeants need more persistent and higher quality data feeds and network connectivity.  The traditional Pentagon acquisition process – whereby the military buys, owns, and operates – cannot meet communications demand now, let alone in the future.  In fact, DoD already uses commercial SATCOM operators to supply 80 percent of its routine communications.  Yes, the same companies who deliver commercial broadband internet services from space also send full motion video captured by Predator drones to commanders at Air Operations Centers, pilots flying combat sorties, and ground troops planning an assault.

Chairman McCain’s report appropriately points out that DoD buys commercial capacity in the most inefficient way possible – annual leases on the spot-market.  This waste is compounded by the Pentagon’s inability to predict demand, track utilization, and strategically plan to optimize a mix of military and commercial SATCOM assets.  We can stop the waste through the deliberate integration of commercial SATCOM capabilities and services into the next-generation DoD SATCOM architecture.  Integration of commercial has four principal benefits: 

  1. Improve purchasing power. Utilizing capacity from commercial satellite operators makes the Pentagon one customer of many, thus lowering costs for all users.  The Pentagon issues cells phones to the troops but does not build its own cell towers or run the network.  Instead, it enters into a commercial agreement with Verizon or AT&T.  The same principle applies to communications from space.   
  1. Receive global access to flexible bandwidth. Commercial operators use maneuverable “spot beams” – concentrated signals in a limited area – to modulate power and coverage based on demand.  DoD needs this flexibility to provide connectivity to the warfighter when and where it is
  1. Enhanced resiliency. Commercial operators use next-generation high throughput capacity (HTC) satellites.  These satellites have massive “pipes” to receive and transmit vast amounts of data and multiple spot beams which reuse the same pieces of electromagnetic spectrum.  HTC satellites make the entire architecture more “resilient” because it is exceedingly difficult to jam multiple spot beams with maneuvering capabilities.  An opponent would have to turn his country into a giant jammer to keep the signals from getting through.  DoD should benefit from HTC satellites which commercial operators have already developed to prevent interference for their customers. 
  1. Complicating targeting for our enemies. Using hundreds of commercial satellites instead of a handful of government-owned, government-operated satellites “distributes” the architecture.  This concept is akin to using 5% of 100 satellites rather than 100% of five satellites.  Innovators like OneWeb, SpaceX, and Boeing are planning to build and launch massive constellations of thousands of satellites in the near future.  Destroying a single or handful of satellites does not limit operational ability.  A complicated targeting picture is a wonderful form of deterrence.  Our enemies are less likely to invest billions of dollars into direct ascent anti-satellite missiles if their successful engagement will not change the outcome of the conflict. 

Commercial satellite operators will continue to expand capacity and throughput.  They will continue to privately capitalize innovations that make space-based communications more resilient and improve our ability to fight and win wars.  Senator John McCain’s report identified much waste and inefficiency in the Department of Defense.  The purchase of SATCOM is among the toughest challenges.  The Senate and House Armed Services Committees must pay attention to the DoD’s SATCOM Analysis of Alternatives to ensure the best outcome for our warfighters and our taxpayers. Of course, let’s not forget to eliminate the $1.4 million spent on the bomb sniffing capabilities of giant African rats.

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