The recent vilification of the use of a Chinese satellite to fulfill a U.S. DoD operational communications requirement in Africa is not surprising. Intuitively, using a satellite owned and controlled by a country whose policies and actions are in direct opposition to those of the U.S. does not make sense. Congressman John Garamendi of the House Armed Service Committee stated, very clearly, that we must “remain vigilant in protecting our communications data.”
Domestic commercial satellite operators who support the DoD, including XTAR, have made significant investments in Information Assurance (IA) capabilities dictated by DISA and DoD. We have been working tremendously hard to ensure that we take the highest precautions to allay Congressman Garamendi’s justified concerns. Commercial operators have incurred significant out-of-pocket costs to implement the IA standards dictated by the DoD without any commitment of future contracts. We have also been trying to resurrect the Mission Assurance Working Group (MAWG) to collaborate with the DoD to better manage operational data and to respond to external threats to mission capabilities. Also, several commercial operators in the industry have also been working with the DoD to suggest mechanisms for them to become more efficient buyers of commercial space capabilities – see our “Seven Ways” paper issued a few months ago.
Proponents of wholly government-owned satellite systems are using this Chinese issue to reinforce their arguments for buying more systems like WGS to fulfill military needs, rather than relying on commercial space segment. But it doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario: Either buy more WGS birds or rely on Chinese satellites to fulfill our military’s satellite communications needs.
Congressman Garamendi also expressed his concern that we are “failing to cultivate the domestic capacity to respond to our defense needs.” This is the key point. The military has relied in large part upon commercial capabilities for the past decade to support its operations around the world. Commercial operators responded by allocating additional transponders to regions of conflict, moving beams, and sometimes even relocated satellites to meet coverage demands. They have also launched new capacity into regions of high demand in order to support critical DoD missions.
Commercial operators have been forward leaning in every conceivable manner, including contracting flexibility and IA compliance. We have even gone to the extent of launching capabilities specifically for DoD requirements (think XTAR’s X-band satellites and Intelsat’s UHF payload on IS 27 – unfortunately lost on launch failure earlier this year – amongst other examples).
So Congressman Garamendi is absolutely right. We need to invest in our domestic capabilities, to bring those trusted commercial satellite operators into the fold, to collaborate with and to support them. Most importantly, we have to formally acknowledge that the support commercial operators provide is a permanent thing, not just an unpleasant temporary solution to meet immediate needs. We must build our long-term future architecture on the premise that commercial capacity will remain a valued and critical part of the DoD satcoms solution. This means including long term contracting, a budget line item for commercial space segment capabilities (think of this as infrastructure), and the inclusion of new technology and capabilities, including hosted payloads, as integral pieces of the solution. Only by doing this can we effectively integrate our Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (military and commercial) assets with our national security goals.