The U.S. Defense Department is investing billions of dollars in new military satellite communications (MILSATCOM) systems such as the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF), Wideband Global Services (WGS) and Transformational Communications System (TCS) to transform the way U.S. forces communicate and operate in modern combat. Unfortunately, reliance on these expensive and delayed programs has hampered the networked capabilities of operating units. Specific programs such as WGS are at least two years behind schedule and certainly years away from meeting the global needs of our forces. The first phase of WGS slated for launch this fall will not provide coverage to the most troubled regions such as Africa and Southwest Asia for at least the next five years. This would suggest that the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is unable to provide the Defense Department with all the available means to ensure reliable delivery of information.
Not only does the projected bandwidth shortage threaten the connectivity of U.S. forces around the globe, but also the existing bandwidth shortage already is having repercussions on the morale of our troops in theater. Because of bandwidth availability limits, the Defense Department has cut off Web-based services that allow soldiers to communicate with their families. Clearly the military demand for bandwidth is growing, and existing MILSATCOM systems neither are meeting that need sufficiently today nor will be able to in the near future.
Given the considerable cost of MILSATCOM systems and consistently delayed deployments, how best should the Defense Department take advantage of commercial satellite communications (SATCOM) systems that fill the gap today? Hundreds of millions of dollars in private equity have built and launched commercial systems at one-sixth the cost of some Defense Department systems. Commercial SATCOM frequencies, such as X band, are available today and tailored to provide high-power mobile communication capacity to forces operating in austere regions throughout the world. Furthermore, commercial X-band systems already complement the phased (delinquent) deployment of WGS. So why isn’t the Defense Department taking advantage of an existing infrastructure?
Distributed mobile operations represent the most significant area of growth in Iraq and Afghanistan. Forces increasingly are dispersed geographically and require more than common radio communications to conduct operations. As the new U.S. Africa Command readies itself for that vast continent, the disparate needs of its relief operations will only compound Defense Department communication problems. These missions and regions critically rely on not just bandwidth but also the dependable delivery of information to and from front line operating units. They represent the individual soldier, operating maneuver units, special operation cells and humanitarian relief agencies.
Public speeches, congressional testimonies and published articles by senior leaders, including combatant commanders, don’t seem to have any significant effect on the network shortfall of today’s forces. The demand is growing, but Defense Department policy and DISA bureaucracy react sluggishly to requirements alone instead of anticipating tactical and operational demand.
Commercial companies, non-governmental organizations and our enemies all have recognized that connectivity is the key enabler in their operations. The emerging concept of Web 2.0—in which the Web itself acts as a full-fledged computing platform and users readily organize for broad participation by harnessing collective intelligence to achieve results previously unimaginable—is flourishing. Global terrorists have mastered this power to offset the military advantage that U.S. and coalition forces should enjoy. Defense Department MILSATCOM extravagance no longer can compete. It is a system classically characterized by the practice of protecting programs of record against existing commercial services instead of simply providing connectivity.
The military needs a SATCOM provisioning process that is based on the reliable delivery of information and ease of information mobility regardless of origin and without programmatic bias. This means leveraging all available resources—military, commercial, coalition, terrestrial, space or airborne assets. There should never be a situation in which idle bandwidth capacity in an area of operation is not being used to support U.S. operations at the tactical level of war. In addition, the Defense Department must review the practice of handling commercial SATCOM in combat operations as a “working capital fund,” because units should not be charged directly for their communication needs.
By almost every measure of comparison, whether it is wireless bandwidth per household or percentage of population bandwidth penetration, global connectivity is outpacing the U.S. use rate. Asia alone has nearly twice the number of Internet users than the United States with only 12 percent market penetration. From a military standpoint, U.S. forces that previously were superior in almost every other measure possible have not only peer competitors but also superior opponents in networking operations. In some cases, enemies are showing a genuine mastering of network operations using open source connectivity. This proficiency costs U.S. lives and diminishes security. While Defense Department officials may chafe at congressional involvement, this may be the only way that the Defense Department responds to its misguided policies. As the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle and other programs have revealed, congressional intervention may be needed to ensure that servicemen and -women get the very best that we can afford.