Judging from the omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018, Congress and the U.S. Department of Defense understand how critical space is to the nation’s military. According to an article in Space News, the fiscal 2018 budget contains additional millions of dollars for space that the Pentagon did not even request. Appropriators explained that they want to ensure that the Air Force is able to “recapitalize multiple constellations that will require replacements in the coming decade — space situational awareness, positioning, navigation and timing, weather, missile warning, wideband communications and protected communications.”
Budget dollars are obviously essential, and we take it as a positive sign that the government wants to be sure to make funding available for SATCOM. However, many in the commercial industry are puzzled that the appropriations bill called for ordering two more Wideband Global (WGS) satellites, based on technology that dates back to 2002.
Additionally, the two additional WGS satellites will primarily offer Ka-band frequency SATCOM. The installed base of SATCOM infrastructure used by the services, particularly for aero/ISR purposes, is designed for Ku-band. Forcing a change to Ka-band would prevent the military from leveraging the Ku-band antenna/modem infrastructure already in place across the Department of Defense, including manpack, flyway, communications-on-the-move (COTM), airborne, and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The ability to use current ground equipment with Ku-band leads to substantial cost savings for the government customer.
The choice to continue with older, traditional widebeam satellite technology is also a surprise. There are now next-generation high-throughput satellite (HTS) platforms in operation that greatly over-perform traditional widebeam platforms for small mobility antennas, while also providing increased flexibility and resiliency. For example, Intelsat EpicNG HTS will enable existing Gray Eagle and Reaper ISR platforms to deliver SATCOM data rates up to three times greater than those on traditional widebeam satellites.
And during a recent test over Intelsat 29e, the U.S. Marine Corps users achieved a total simultaneous throughput capacity of approximately 9 Mbps utilizing 9.7 MHz of allocated bandwidth. This represents approximately five times more throughput versus the less than 2 Mbps in the same amount of bandwidth on traditional wide-beam satellites via very small aperture terminals.
Such dramatic improvements have already revolutionized commercial in-flight SATCOM. Airlines are under pressure to provide their passengers with connected experiences that meet or even exceed terrestrial expectations. A recent article detailed how a trade journalist was able to simultaneously stream both YouTube and Netflix on a Delta 757 flight, thanks to Ku-band HTS service.
The introduction of new HTS technology has created an inflection point in space. The commercial space industry is dedicated to working with its government customers through this period of change, ensuring that the right processes and procurement models are implemented to take full advantage of commercial innovation in space.
Having the money in the budget is definitely a needed step. But the DoD needs to be sure that funding is dedicated to the right technology to move national security forward in space.