In a move that surprised many in the Department of Defense (DoD), Congress added $600 million to the Air Force FY18 budget for two Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) satellites — WGS 11 and 12. The $600 million doesn’t include launch or operations funding, meaning more spending challenges over the long term. What’s more, by using WGS 11 and 12 technologies that have been surpassed by the private sector, our warfighters will be left underserved, potentially disadvantaging them on the battlefield, and even putting them in harm’s way.
Even with incremental improvements, the satellite communications (SATCOM) systems the DoD uses today, including WGS, are based on designs completed in the late 1990s to early 2000s, offering limited capacity and resiliency by today’s standards. Meanwhile, private sector SATCOM providers including Viasat and others are adding an estimated 4.2 Terabits per second (Tbps) of capacity within the next few years, approximately 285 times the capacity WGS 11 and 12 will provide. This additional capacity will significantly enhance mission effectiveness and improve warfighter safety through a number of life-saving, bandwidth-intensive cloud based applications. I urge the government to accelerate the insertion of private sector capabilities to give our warfighters the information dominance they deserve.
The decision to move forward with WGS 11 and 12 is similar to suggesting the DoD stick with pagers in a smartphone driven world — and at a dramatically higher cost to the U.S. taxpayer. Even today, Viasat has nearly 10 times more capacity in use than the DoD’s projected demand in the year 2030. One example of private sector capacity already available to the DoD is our new ViaSat-2 satellite, which is approaching more than 100 times the capacity of current WGS satellites. This equates to higher speeds and greater protection in a contested environment.
Compared to other services and equipment, satellites and high-speed connectivity may not seem like a critical asset for the military, but superior connectivity is what gives our warfighters the tactical edge they need to be successful. Imagine, then, our warfighters in the field relying on ’90s-era connections in a 21st century battlespace. Warfighters must be able to access the best solutions available today and it’s critical they not be locked-in to any one satellite or vendor.
A number of military leaders are keenly aware of the advantages to be gained by leveraging the speed of commercial innovation in space. Commander of U.S. Strategic Command General John Hyten has been adamant that U.S. military space programs speed up as adversaries close in on the United States’ military capabilities.
Purpose-built SATCOM systems like WGS often take 7-10 years to acquire, develop and deploy, and are difficult to upgrade once in service. Private-sector SATCOM systems can go from design to deployment in under five years, and employ concepts that allow for rapid modifications, upgrades, and near-instantaneous response to security threats.
To speed up production, increase capacity, deter foreign threats and maintain superiority in space, the DoD would benefit greatly from working with the commercial sector to develop a Hybrid Adaptive Network Architecture. The concept is similar to the way cellphone service providers operate: allowing users to roam across different networks to ensure access to reliable service. Similarly, a Hybrid Adaptive Network leverages commercial innovation to allow military forces to roam freely across private sector and DoD purpose-built networks – providing the best available SATCOM around the globe.
While satellites like WGS are both expensive and limited in their ability, a Hybrid Adaptive Network is more economical, resilient, and infinitely more flexible. You’d be hard pressed to find any military expert who doesn’t see the value in tools that can more readily respond to changing conditions.
Some lawmakers attempted to justify funding the WGS satellites as a way to hedge to a transition from legacy to future SATCOM systems. However, as our adversaries increase their capabilities, our warfighters need more than what WGS 11 and 12 can provide. Instead of providing more legacy capability, the department can seamlessly implement a Hybrid Network by leveraging commercial SATCOM capacity already available while it develops WGS 11 and 12. With threats advancing quickly, so should the United States.
This is not simply about who gets a contract; this is about empowering the warfighter with the best technology and capabilities available today. The data is clear – by leveraging the speed, security and capacity of commercial innovation to create an interoperable SATCOM network, we will be able to provide our warfighters with the bandwidth-intensive tools and applications needed across today’s rapidly evolving battlespace.
Ken Peterman serves as the president of Government Systems at Viasat, a world leader in satellite communications, networking and related technologies.