• Photo courtesy of NASA
     Photo courtesy of NASA

U.S. Losing Lead in Satellite Technology

March 18, 2015
By Sandra Jontz
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Adversaries leveraging commercial advancements are gaining ground


It will not be long before adversaries narrow the superiority gap the United States holds over others in satellite technology—rivals who are unencumbered by bureaucratic stagnation and who can rapidly leverage commercial technology for military use, according to one panelist speaking at the Satellite 2015 symposium in Washington D.C.

It’s not the asymmetric threat or hazards posed by terrorists that worry Ken Peterman, said the executive vice president and general manager of the government systems division of ViaSat Incorporated. The United States is falling behind the “well-resourced national, sovereign threat. I think that we are in danger that they will close the gap and leverage the commercial technology” that the U.S. military is not.

There is no reason for the United States to acquiesce, especially as government officials warn of a continued decline in budgets, said Tina Harrington, director of the Signals Intelligence Systems Acquisition Directorate at the National Reconnaissance Office. “Why would I buy my own IT, or my own [communications systems] or some of my own ground systems when those already exist out there?” Harrington said at the annual symposium, echoing what industry panelists also voiced. “How do I better leverage the things that are being built for others so that I do not need to spend my limited resources?”

“Space is contested, and it is not just contested because there are a lot of people up there,” Harrington said. “It’s contested because there are some folks who want to make it into a contested environment. We’re going to have to deal with that as we move forward. That’s not going to change.”

Two decades ago, government leaders worked hard to avoid taking risks. “In reality, we can’t have a risk-adverse posture. … As we move forward, I see that changing,” Harrington said. “We need to make sure that we’re still getting the [research and development] investments. One of the things that will kill us as we move forward is always building the same thing. The more I build the same thing, the less I drive innovation, the less I drive the next generations of my system engineers, of my design engineers—all those folks who come up with the great ideas. You have to keep that R&D, that innovation continuing.”

Commercial providers have made advancements to allay government security fears, said Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General. “As commercial providers, I think we are well aware of the threat landscape and the increasing capabilities of our adversaries. … We, as the commercial community, and in particular the commercial operators, will start to invest in protection capability, both space-based protections as well as cyber. Commercial operators are becoming more integrated into the ops domain of the military,” Sears said during the panel, titled, “The Future of Government and Military Space: Safe Bets and Bold Predictions.”

She voiced a bold prediction likely welcomed by industry and government alike: “The price of commercial will approach owner economics of DOD military systems. There is no doubt in my mind that the way that our commercial innovation is taking place with high-throughput satellites, with ground-breaking technology … that we will … become more economical than” government owned and operated systems. “Commercial can fill that need, can carry that mission, can carry protected [communications], and there will be no need for a government-owned and operated wideband system, which will free up the government to focus on the harder things, not the things that the commercial community can deliver.”

The last 20 years have been very successful for space, but skyrocketing advancements have simmered and military technological progress has been gradual, said Col. Chris Crawford, USAF, director of space policy implementation at the Defense Department. “We have not seen the leaps ahead.”

President Barack Obama’s recent budget included significant funding for space security, a “great first step, but longer steps need to be taken,” Col. Crawford said. “Space has clearly become a warfighter domain.”

One of the biggest challenges facing the Defense Department in leveraging commercial technology is the lethargic acquisitions process, Peterman said. “I think the bold prediction is that the DOD will figure it out—acquisition reform will happen.”

“It’s unconscionable that a child in the middle seat of a Jet Blue aircraft has better inflight broadband capability” than some factions of the military, Peterman added.

But government reform is notoriously slow, and at next year’s symposium, experts likely will bemoan the lack of progress; that “2015 went by and we don’t have yet a new architecture that is unifying of the department, and even beyond that, with our international partners, with our intel community partners,” said Chuck Cynamon, vice president of business development and strategy for MDA Information Systems Incorporated.  

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