Keeping in touch with modern militaries

by Staff Reporter | June 4th, 2013

As reliance on UAVs increase with the troop pullout in Afghanistan, demand for bandwidth continues to remain high and will increase as operations shift to North Africa and possibly parts of Asia.

Conceding that the future needs of milsatcom are uncertain, Åke Jönsson, Sales Director, , recalls that the drivers for milsatcom during the 2003 operations in Iraq ranged from the international nature of the missions, the political and regional unrest that erupted as a result of the conflict, the net-centric warfare and the introduction of new sensor systems, notably the UAVs.

Satcom deployed at lower levels

A broad trend indicates that satcom is being used at lower levels. Experts believe that the use of milsatcom outside the higher strategic levels to a lower, tactical level imposes new demands on the terminals and the users. The users are typically mobile, working under severe mission critical restrictions in terms of space and time.

“The use of terminals,” observes Jönsson, “in today’s military operations, for instance, demonstrate certain trends. Satcom solutions are being deployed at the tactical levels, SOTM vehicles are still limited in use, Ku-band terminals continue to dominate and the rapid increase in satcom in ops underlines the critical importance of support by providers.”

Transition to network systems is a strong characteristic of the nature of satcom in today’s military operations, states Jonsson. This is also being seen as a by-product of milsatcom being used at the tactical levels.

“The transition to IP networks is ongoing though there are still some point-to-point communications. The architecture typically follows the hub-and-spoke distribution paradigm with a range of serial and IP encryption solutions being used.”

More bandwidth for fewer troops

In the new paradigm, milsatcom experts believe that communication is not only an enabler but is directly affecting the outcomes of wars. A top US army commander during Operation Iraqi

Freedom (OIF) was quoted as saying that networked forces rule the battlefield.

Allowing for a reported ratio of one coalition soldier to 70 to 90 opposition soldiers, OIF saw the bandwidth usage increase from 100Mbps to almost 4Gbps – more bandwidth for fewer troops.

Though X and Ka-band usage are on the rise, Ku-band remains the main support, observes Jönsson.

“In terms of trends in frequency and bandwidth usage, commercial Ku-band is the main source. With the emergence of new satellites, X-band is now viable for smaller terminals and is being used for secure operations and while Ka-band availability is limited to-date, the usage is growing.”

In terms of bandwidth, the brigades would typically use megabits and the squads would be allotted kilobits. The widespread use of SOTM is around the corner and the future will take on the multiband approach, predicts Jönsson.

Diverse missions driving use of diverse tools

“With continuously increasing needs for higher data rates, deployed down to the tactical level and operational demands for increased mobility and fast deployment, there is growing preference for suitcase terminals and manpacks with increased throughput – terminals that are essentially compact, easy to use and quick to air.”

It is widely acknowledged that today’s soldiers are not just fighters, but they are at times peace keepers, relief workers and so on. And as the military adapts to different operational needs, the standard work tools have changed dramatically, asserts Jönsson.

“VoIP and video teleconferencing are standard work tools. There is an increased demand for quick access to sensor information and given the cost sensitivities of the time, we see trends such as bandwidth sharing and increased utilisation efficiency.”

The need for modularity and interoperability

Given the rapidly changing scenario, it is critical to define the satcom needs to enable future capabilities and modularbuilt terminals offer flexibility for current-day operations, states Jönsson.

“In terms of terminals, the ‘usercommunity’ has not clarified operational needs for SOTM. Terminals need to be designed for all environments. Aspects such as optimal power consumption need to be looked into as do designs that produce high performance antenna and efficient modulation to save bandwidth.

As stated earlier, the systems should require minimal training for operators.

There should be no need for babysitters.”

While the global nature of operations call for flexible solutions and this is particularly important when designing networks, there are mindset issues, observers Jönsson.

“IP-Encryption is still not ‘accepted’ as secure and there is the challenge to ensure compatibility of any new system with legacy terminals.”

Acknowledging the challenges, Andy Hide, Head of Strategy Middle East, Astrium, asserts: “Change is certain, responsiveness is key.

“With the need for mobility anytime and anywhere, satcom should enable, not constrain. The interoperability element that is critical in a coalition environment is the new focus for the industry as governments and militaries find new ways to procure satcom capabilities.”

Hide concedes that the need for interoperability in the coalition environment is not a unique challenge and is widely recognised as the “common aiming point”.

“But there are many different routes in terms of how to achieve interoperability and many lessons have already been learned. Multiple short-notice missions in a coalition environment drive a requirement for extremely dynamic communications capability.

To combine this ‘dynamism’, with the integrity, security and robustness that the war fighter demands, implies that technology including management systems and advanced waveforms are part of the solution. There needs to be intimate understanding of how all communication bearers and service-providing networks collaborate and interact in an operational environment.”

The aim is to make secure national capability affordable, stresses Hide.

Collaboration between governments and commercial satcom

One of the oft cited examples of collaboration between commercial satcom and governments is the Skynet 5 military communications system owned and operated by Astrium Services since

2007, for the UK Ministry of Defence, through a Private Finance Initiative (PFI). The seventh Ariane 5 mission of 2012 carried the British military communications satellite Skynet 5D recently. Skynet 5D will join the existing three Skynet 5 satellites.

Another prime example of collaboration, this time between governments, is the U.S. military’s

Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) constellation of X- and Ka-band satellites. While four WGS satellites are in operation in geostationary orbit, aided by two international partnerships with Australia and the other with Canada, Denmark, New Zealand, Luxembourg and the Netherlands — the US Air Force has reportedly ordered six more spacecraft from manufacturer, Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California. These satellites are scheduled to be launched between 2013 and 2018. As reported in the trade press, the five nations will benefit from a 25% reduction in the cost of their participation because the US

Air Force was able to negotiate a better price from Boeing for the ninth WGS spacecraft, whose construction these nations are financing.

Underscoring the benefits of outsourcing operations and maintenance in milsatcom programmes, Nicolas Stephan, General Manager, LSE Space Middle East, begins with an everyday example saying “you do not fix your car yourself… you use a professional”.

“You do not fix a car yourself”

“The armed forces’ role has changed post the Cold War and after 9/11. The international financial crisis has cut military budgets, and coupled with the difficulty in some countries to find the appropriate skilled manpower, to run more and more complex satcom systems.”

Outsourcing some aspects of the military missions becomes an option allowing for the optimisation of your assets, states Stephan.

“There are two ways of outsourcing. The first option would be to buy the complete end-to-end satcom service which would typically mean buying capacity on a satellite. The second option would be to outsource operations and maintenance within the military premises.”

Outsourcing in milsatcom can be limited in scale owing to security and safety reasons, states Stephan, but there are many areas where outsourcing can be implemented.

“There is ample room for outsourcing from handling satellite operations per se to monitoring the network control centre and maintenance of anchor stations including RF, baseband, modems and maintenance of satellite ground terminals.”

Hurdles towards outsourcing

There are numerous misconceptions about outsourcing that more often than not hamper the process, states Stephan.

“Among the misconceptions include the fear of losing managerial control and that one would normally not outsource on the other side of the world where the operations are. Among the oft mentioned misconceptions are that outsourcing of satcom services could pose a threat to security and confidentiality issues. That’s why the management of cryptographic elements should remain under armed forces’ control.”

The need to ‘control’ the contractor also drives misconceptions on the part of militaries/governments vis-à-vis outsourcing. Stephan stresses the need for flexibility and trust and believes these misconceptions need to be overcome because the advantages of outsourcing outweigh the concerns that militaries typically have.

“The army can focus on core activities, with soldiers and officers focussing on their missions. Communications via satellite is not the mission, it is just the means to make the mission a success.

“With outsourcing, more staff can be allocated to the primary targets of the mission, and critically more staff is available for deployment on the field.”

Outsourcing simply allows experts to deal with satcom issues ensuring efficiency in operations and maintenance, thus reducing costs, stresses Stephan.

“Outsourcing is a cost effective solution. Only limited training is required for military personnel, freeing them to concentrate on mission critical tasks. The contractor’s personnel already has experience in similar systems and technical pre-requisites and most importantly, with quality control and service delivery. Performance can be guaranteed with SLAs.”

Successfully outsourced operations such as Skynet in the UK, SatComBw in Germany and Syracuse in France depend on, according to Stephan, good relationships with the contractor, trust between parties, flexibility of the contractor, fairness of the armed forces and support of consultants to establish contracts.

One notable initiative in this regard is one launched by the European Defense Agency (EDA) to pool satcom demand and reduce costs by 10%. The EDA has awarded Astrium Services an initial three year, €2.3 million (USD 3 million) contract to act as the commercial and operational interface with satellite operators.

One of the headline-grabbing initiatives towards collaboration between governments and commercial entities is the growing acceptance of the hosted payloads. And for good reason. Government payloads usually take longer to develop than commercial satellites. Both industry and government are working to make hosted payloads more acceptable. While the Pentagon is developing administrative models to make procuring and deploying hosted payloads easier, we have instances such as the Australian Defence Force hosting a USD 167 million military satcom payload on the Intelsat 22 satellite launched in 2012.

“Finding the right manpower should therefore not be a problem anymore for the armed forces around the world. Militaries should focus on the mission, not on the logistics behind it,” concluded Stephan.

The logistics of deploying modern militaries is only increasing in complexity, states Jönsson of Rockwell Collins. As the satcom experts – both commercial and government – work towards improving bandwidth efficiency and seek interoperability for joint/ coalition operations, the increased data rates will probably see the networks moving beyond terminals to SDR (Software Defined Radio), WiMax and Mobile GSM base stations solutions. The consensus among the satcom experts is that global operations require multiple frequency bands.

Jönsson of Rockwell Collins elaborates: ‘The flexibility through open architecture, includes systems built on modularity that are easily adaptable, upgradeable and future proof. The need of the day is modular technology that takes into account terminals that have multiple antenna sizes, networks with multiple modem options and multiple transceiver options in terms of frequency/bandwidth solutions.”

“You don’t know where you will go tomorrow,” states Jonsson and the uncertain future of military satcom calls for “flexibility through modularity, easily adaptable systems and future proof solutions”.

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