What's Old Is New

July 2006
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

Back in 1946 when AFCEA and SIGNAL Magazine were new, the number-one technology problem vexing military planners was to provide mobile communications to the warfighter. Now, 60 years later, we face exactly the same challenge. Even though all of the other factors of warfare have changed, that problem still persists.

Obviously, wireless technologies are one of the keys to mobile warfighting. Every combatant commander lists wireless as vital for prevailing in every future conflict that may arise in his area of responsibility. This challenge has the attention of the assistant secretary of defense for networks and information integration, John G. Grimes; the Joint Staff J-6, Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC; and many like officials in other countries around the world. It is an international challenge that involves standards, waveforms, spectrum and other issues. All of these elements are worthy and will require a great deal of attention.

But, as an offshoot, one of the keys to wireless technology reaches far and wide. Beyond-line-of-sight communications require a platform that either is airborne or is space-based. Airborne unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are taking on an expanded role over the battlefield. In space, assets also are serving a vital role. I divide these space assets into two categories: big space and smaller space.

Big space assets comprise constellations of both commercial and military satellites. Smaller space assets include more ad hoc elements such as those envisioned in the approach known as Operationally Responsive Space (ORS). An article on page 37 of this month’s SIGNAL discusses the issues surrounding that approach.

If we want to solve this 60-year-old mobile communications problem, then we ought to engage in more efforts such as ORS. Now may be the time for us to look at smaller satellites to conduct a good portion of the missions that we traditionally have asked of big space satellites.

If that is too far a leap for the near term, then we can begin to lay the groundwork for this vital new approach. Many technologies to build smaller satellites are under development right now. We should be able to apply those technologies and their concepts to satellites in big space constellations and to other large satellites as well.

One of the best analogies in favor of adopting an ORS approach can be found in commercial computers. Today, when you order a computer, you order a shell inside of which your requirements are implemented a la carte. Your computer’s processing chip, its memory, its storage system and its peripherals are incorporated individually according to your wishes without any fear of interoperability problems. This modular approach allows you—the customer—to drive the requirements to the point where you get exactly what you have asked for, and it is not expensive.

As processors and sensors have become smaller and more capable while using less power, we should be using those smaller components to build smaller satellites. These systems can satisfy operational requirements that date all the way back to that challenge of mobile communications for the warfighter 60 years ago.

To be fair, there are a lot of oxen to be gored with this new approach. Many large government organizations and programs have been built around large satellites. But, as with any warfighting technology, bigger is not always better. In fact, military history is rife with examples of traditionally large warfighting platforms that have had to yield their prominence to modernizations that created smaller but more lethal counterparts.

In the commercial arena, we can see a distant reflection of today’s situation by looking at the U.S. automotive industry in the 1950s. The big three automobile makers—Chrysler, Ford and General Motors—saw their biggest profit margins in the sale of large cars, so they placed their design and marketing emphases on these large vehicles. The fact that there were a few small cars entering the market from Europe and Japan didn’t faze the U.S. companies as they continued to build and sell large automobiles. Ultimately, the growing shift in customer preference for smaller cars became a tsunami with the oil shocks of the 1970s. The U.S. automakers were caught flat-footed because they had not put enough effort into engineering small cars for the mass market, and imports from Europe and Japan gained a wide acceptance and market share that continues to this day.

The U.S. satellite industry is in peril of suffering the same fate. Europe, China, India and other technologically advanced nations are poised to step into the marketplace and eradicate the U.S. lead in satellites. But the more painful loss will not be in market share. It will be in warfighting capabilities that lose the advantages inherent in smaller space.

We need to sit back and ask, “What is really the right answer for the future of warfare as we see it?” I am confident that if we do, the answer will be found in small packages.


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