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Shelton Anticipates Greater COMSATCOM Capacity Over Asia In 5-To-10 Years

Defense Daily – The Air Force anticipates greater commercial satellite communications (COMSATCOM) capacity in the Asia-Pacific region over the next five-to-10 years for the service to leverage, according to the head of its space forces.

“I think we’re going to see people moving to where there’s a market,” Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) chief Gen. William Shelton said Tuesday at an Atlantic Council think tank event in downtown Washington. “I think there’s going to be much more of a market there.”

Shelton said the Air Force has found there currently isn’t “nearly” the capacity needed over the region, which the Defense Department has trumpeted as its next big focus area. Shelton said there isn’t much satellite communications (SATCOM) capacity available for the Air Force over the Asia-Pacific for “surge” or even “steady state” capability, and that the service is “actively” looking at that with commercial satellite providers.

The Air Force is currently studying the best approach to leveraging COMSATCOM resources for future needs, Shelton said later Tuesday during a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon. Though Shelton said the Air Force has not determined the “best way to go,” it expects to wrap up its study in the December-January timeframe.

The Air Force for years has leased COMSATCOM capacity from operators on a short-term, spot market basis to fulfill its needs. Spot market buying is expensive as operators usually charge high rates for last-minute procurement, as opposed to lower rates for long-term deals. COMSATCOM operators like Intelsat General (IGC) have pushed the Air Force to develop a comprehensive plan for procuring COMSATCOM capabilities so it may know when and where to invest to provide the DoD the capability it needs.

Though DoD has said COMSATCOM operators are in its long-term plan, it wouldn’t completely outsource SATCOM capability because industry has not been able to prove it’s a better deal than procuring its own satellites. Steven Miller, director of advanced systems cost analysis for Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD)/Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE), said in March if the product being bought is a “very short, transient” thing, then it makes sense to procure commercial service systems. But Miller said in the long run, if it is something that is going to be owned and operated, it’s extremely difficult to make that business case (Defense Daily, March 10).

One COMSATCOM executive who has been pushing DoD for a long-term procurement plan is Andrew Ruszkowski, chief commercial officer of X-band satellite operator XTAR. Ruszkowski told Defense Daily Tuesday while Shelton is correct that COMSATCOM operators will likely respond to market forces demanding capacity over the Asia-Pacific, the real question is who will launch the capacity, what kind of capacity will be launched and will it specifically meet the evolving requirements of the militaries that are going to be operating in the Asia-Pacific region in the future.

Ruszkowski said new systems like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that call for high-throughput, high-bandwidth requirements are evolving. But will the satellites launched over the past decade support those kinds of requirements without DoD making some sort of commitment to the COMSATCOM operating industry?

Ruszkowski doubts that.

“I think what we’ll see is most satellite operators launching capacity which allows them to hedge their bets between different markets (and) different kinds of applications” Ruszkowski said. “What they’re not going to do is launch capacity which really meets the unique requirements of government users. I think that’s the gap most likely to occur and become broader and more acute as time goes on. That’s going to be the missed opportunity.”

XTAR faces a unique challenge not faced by other COMSATCOM operators because X-band is exclusively for government use, though Ruszkowski said rules vary country-by-country. In the United States, X-band is used by both military and other civil/federal users. Ruszkowski said XTAR, in general, tries to follow U.S. rules because the federal government, he said, is its most important customer.

Due to its focus on the government customer, XTAR is in a market position without much wiggle room and has to anticipate what the U.S. government customer wants, Ruszkowski said. While Ruszkowski said it’s not “impossible” for XTAR to move to another frequency band, it’s focused on the U.S. government user.

“What we put up will, we hope, be designed to meet the demand that’s coming from that customer,” Ruszkowski said. “That’s a challenge for us. We’re not going to launch capacity that can be used by broadcasters one day and the Army the next…We have got to get this right when we launch capacity.”

While Ruszkowski appreciated Shelton’s remarks on working with industry for additional COMSATCOM capacity in the Asia-Pacific, he wondered if DoD was prepared to use that additional capability. Ruszkowski said DoD needs to address a gap in thinking that COMSATCOM capabilities “will be there when (DoD) needs it.”

“(DoD has to) be careful about the lessons that were learned (from previous conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan) where the stars aligned and the commercial systems happened to be there in the right volume to support the government’s needs,” Ruszkowski said. “You cannot assume that is going to be the case in the future, particularly in somewhere like southeast Asia and the Pacific.”

One of the Air Force’s SATCOM constellations is Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS). WGS, developed by Boeing [BA], provides cross-banded-X and Ka-band communications through its six satellites. It will feature a second block of satellites set for launch starting in fiscal year 2015.

The Air Force, to the chagrin of COMSATCOM operators, has pursued international investment in its unprotected SATCOM systems to help defray costs. Australia invested $700 million in WGS, helping the Air Force procure a satellite, WGS-6, as well as two remote monitoring and control stations. Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and New Zealand are also WGS partners (Defense Daily, April 22).

The Air Force did not respond to an additional request for comment by press time.