Space: Militarizing Civilian Satellites

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March 31, 2011:  The U.S. military is increasingly dependent on satellite communications, and commercial satellites. Currently, half of the Department of Defense's satellite communications (SATCOM) capability is obtained from commercial satellites. That is not expected to change much in the next decade, even as military demand nearly triples from its current 20 gigabytes a second. The Department of Defense has resigned itself to the fact that not enough dedicated military satellites can be bought. Moreover, for an additional fee, the military can buy priority on commercial satellites for emergency demands. Another innovation is arranging to add small military payloads to commercial satellites. One example is the infrared (heat) sensor used to detect ballistic missile launches across the planet. The military needs many of these early warning satellites, and it's much cheaper just to have the sensor built into a commercial satellite. This is being called "hosted payloads" and the commercial satellite companies are enthusiastic about it because it reduces their costs.

But the big problem remains satellite communications which, while having many advantages, is expensive. With the non-satellite radios, you don't pay anything beyond the cost of the radio, and maintenance. But with satellite communications you get billed by the minute, and the amount of data being moved via these very expensive satellites. For a heavy data user, like a UAV sending back real time video, this can be several dollars a minute. Unfortunately, sending this real time video is a very popular, and useful, application. More troops are using it, although most of the short range UAVs send their video direct to a ground station. But there are some serious problems looming for military use of satellite communications. No one yet knows how fast this use will grow, and so far it's not been possible to get enough military communications satellites into orbit to take care of current needs.

There will always be a need for some commercial satellites, especially for surge situations, particularly when there's a war going on. The military's worst nightmare is going into an operation with a lot of satellite communications gear, and finding that there isn't enough commercial satellite communications capacity available. Currently, the U.S. Department of Defense is spending several billion dollars a year to buy capacity on commercial satellites. There are still occasional shortages, and the situation is expected to get worse unless the Department of Defense can either launch more of its own communications satellites (unlikely, with shrinking defense budgets), or make better use of commercial satellites.

 


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