Commercial Satellite Capacity Increasingly Important to Military Operations

By William Ostrove, Forecast International

Militaries are increasingly pressed to find enough capacity to meet their needs. Just as businesses and consumers become more connected via high-bandwidth networks, increased data transmissions between warfighters and unmanned vehicles require greater bandwidth. To keep up with demand, militaries have long relied on commercial satellite operators to supplement military-owned communications satellites. In the past, these deals have primarily been short-term capacity leases that meet an immediate need.

For example, the U.S. Navy is supplementing UHF capacity from its UFO and MUOS constellations with capacity from Intelsat General (based in the U.S.), the United Kingdom’s Skynet service, and Italy’s Sicral service. The UHF capacity crunch is partially caused by delays in the MUOS program, which is replacing the UFO fleet, and by increased demand for bandwidth from warfighters.

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The U.S. government is also working to standardize its method of purchasing commercial bandwidth. In July 2010, the Pentagon announced a program called the Future Comsatcom Services Acquisition (FCSA) and issued a solicitation for satellite operators and service providers to bid to provide long-term capacity to the government. The program is managed by the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and the U.S. General Services Agency (GSA), and will purchase capacity for both military and civilian government uses.

Militaries around the world are also working to sign longer-term contracts with satellite operators. In the past, capacity deals were signed on an as-needed basis. In June 2014, the U.S. military signed an $8.2 million contract with SES Government Solutions to use two satellite transponders on an SES satellite orbiting over Africa. The five-year contract is part of a series of pathfinder contracts that test new ways to acquire satellite communications services. The Pentagon hopes to find a contract mechanism that will help reduce the amount it spends on satellite capacity (it spent approximately $1 billion on satellite capacity last year).

European nations are also working to standardize commercial communications satellite capacity for military purposes. The European Satellite Communications Procurement Cell (ESCPC) awarded Astrium (now Airbus Defence and Space) a three-year contract for commercial satellite communications. The ESCPC also gives the five member states (France, Italy, Poland, Romania, and the United Kingdom) a mechanism to pool communications resources.

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