Budget cuts change the landscape for satcom and satellite usage

Satellite communications take on a new role as military space assets redeploy and budgets decline.

“There’s a big frontier in fleshing out technology data with things we get from social media,” said Gary Condon, science and technology adviser to the ISR Task Force at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. “ISR does not necessarily come only from an airplane. There is much more information that helps us understand what is going on.”

Budget cuts and the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan will dramatically change the military over the next few years, but satellite communications may well suffer less than many other areas. Though Pentagon planners haven’t yet made many tactical decisions, strategists throughout the satcom world are mulling plans to adapt to a new environment.

High-ranking military staffers have made relatively few firm decisions on which programs will be trimmed and which will be left largely unscathed. But some directions are emerging. For example, Gen. William Shelton, commander of the Air Force Space Command, recently testified before the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee that some modernization efforts will be eliminated as a result of President Barack Obama's fiscal 2013 request for a 22 percent drop in space programs, falling to $9.6 billion. The Operationally Responsive Space Office and the Space Test Program are two groups likely to be restructured, Shelton said.

Related coverage:

Tech, innovation key to military survival, Takai says

Congress established the ORS in 2007 to shorten the space acquisition cycle while responding to urgent warfighter needs. ORS responded quickly when its five partners the Defense Department and the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines determined they had urgent needs. Two of the launches were made in 2011. The Space Test Program is DOD's primary spaceflight supplier, providing access to space for the DOD space research and development community since 1965.

However, Gil Klinger, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space and intelligence, told the subcommittee that DOD can still boost resilience for U.S. space capabilities. To operate within the budget constraints, DOD is using more fixed-price contracts and pursuing a block buy for the Advanced Extremely High Frequency 5 and 6 satellites, he said.

Program managers have also been given earlier oversight in the acquisition process. That’s already bringing some cost savings. For example, sticking closely to schedules can reduce costs that now occur when plans are changed to add new technology to satellites.

“Never holding up a launch to grab the latest and greatest sensor can hurt you, but the benefits come in the form of big cost savings,” said Bruce Carlson, director of the National Reconnaissance Office.

Uncertainty in the Mideast

The effect of the drawdowns in the Middle East remains uncertain. Some commercial satellite providers say the impact will be slight. They contend that intelligence gathered by unmanned aerial vehicles loaded with high-resolution sensors will become more important when troops aren't on the ground to gather information. UAVs will consume the bandwidth now used by troops. But others predict that global bandwidth requirements will change.

“We are likely to see a shift in geographic coverage and applications,” Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General, predicted in Intelsat’s latest newsletter. “We expect some puts and takes in terms of bandwidth. For example, capacity covering only Iraq is likely to be reduced while satellites that have footprints that span the southwest Asia region and south into Africa are likely to remain attractive for military operations.”

Any shift in satellite usage will have a corresponding impact on the deployment of terminals. The Defense Intelligence Agency currently predicts that the acquisition of very-small-aperture terminals will decline dramatically.

“Force reductions in the combat theater and the looming budget cuts make it almost certain that acquisition of more VSATs [very-small-aperture terminals] is not likely to occur in the numbers that we have seen in previous years,” said a DIA spokesman who asked to remain anonymous. “Instead, it is likely that our military will shift the existing inventory to support operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere and put the large number of VSATs in the inventory into storage for contingencies and [spare parts]. The shift will likely occur from acquisition of new equipment to operation and maintenance of inventory on hand.”

Antenna and terminal providers must now plan for an uncertain future. Although non-military use may rise, it isn’t likely to grow nearly rapidly enough to make up for defense spending reductions.

“The DOD will not be spending the way they used to, and I don’t see anyone else picking up the slack,” said Tony Janetta, chief technical officer at L-3 Global Communications Solutions. “I don’t see any particular region that will see increased deployment. There are needs in South America and Africa, but there’s not a lot of money available.”

Many military planners say they hope that carving out savings in support areas will cover a fair percentage of the spending reductions, leaving more funding for satcom. DOD plans to leverage the rapid advances in IT to trim ongoing costs without impacting effectiveness.

“There’s a huge potential for achieving savings in IT,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said at the GEOINT 2011 symposium. “It’s the greatest single potential area for savings.”

Military strategists are also looking for new, inexpensive ways to gather data. Interest in new media, for example, heightened during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere. Military strategists are now looking at Facebook, Twitter and other Web technologies to help determine what’s going on.