Satellite communications, whether on commercial or proprietary systems, are at a crossroads when looking at military markets. Issues that come to mind given the changes in policy, in warfighting capabilities and in the enemy itself, are leading to questions that include:
- Is the military market sustainable for commercial players over the long term?
- Are current space assets adequate in terms of supply and in terms of capabilities?
- What changes, if any, are required to support future warfighting?
New weapons systems are moving away from Cold War capabilities, and rightly so, given that the enemy has and will continue to change. For future warfighting, technical capabilities need to be developed today in order to tap the military market of the future. More importantly, it would appear that current satellite capabilities are a long way from the vision of the nexgen soldier, which could present opportunities for companies that are willing to invest in systems development for future use.
Policy & Budgets
Before R&D funds are allocated, it is useful to examine the vision of the globes Defense Departments, specifically the Pentagon when considering the future landscape. In April 2009, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates continued to reiterate his position that the U.S. should cease funding $billions into futuristic, highly-expensive, F-22 jet fighters and new presidential helicopters (among others) and, instead, pour taxpayer dollars into systems U.S. soldiers can use against actual adversaries on the ground. The plan or the shift in policy calls for the Pentagon to procure systems for smaller and more direct battlefield conditions that the military is currently facing and is likely to face in future conflicts.
If Secretary Gates gets his way, does the major overhaul that would slash several weapons programs mean less funds for future warfighting? Gates proposed $534 billion budget for the coming year is actually an increase from $513 billion for 2009. Thus, despite talks on budget cuts, current policy calls for discontinuing outdated systems conceived during the Cold War and spending more funds for new systems that directly support the warfighter. The goal is to tap or reflect what future defense capabilities should be such that current and future weapons systems address programs aimed at an evolving enemy, which is becoming highly sophisticated. And here, the administration is not asking for less but for more funds. It is also probably not asking defense plants in the U.S. to shut down but to re-tool.
The new spending thrust reflects the policy change. For instance, instead of the highly expensive $140 million F-22 Raptor, current policy would add $2 billion to fund surveillance and reconnaissance equipment, specifically for 50 new Predator drones. The argument is that the Raptor is ill-suited for deterring roadside bombs or hunting insurgents that vanish into mountains and urban enclaves, whereas UAVs are more useful for reconnaissance and tactical purposes under such conditions.
Many other initiatives and program priorities are outlined by the Pentagon, but the overarching policy is to start building for the next form of warfighting. The priority is to move towards the next step in warfighting evolution. And here, the trend is towards more automation via greater use of UAVs and UAS.
The Next Warfighter:
Aim for the Head
That is not to say, however, that the soldier (or, for that matter, the fighter pilot) will begin to have a decreasing role in warfighting. Indeed, it is Gates vision that the soldier who is engaged in the field, who is in harms way with roadside bombs, and who is chasing insurgents in mountains and urban enclaves, need to be protected and better equipped. As such, the soldier itself will have to evolve to face an evolving enemy. And this is a useful place to begin studying the market prospects for the nexgen soldier and where new market opportunities exist.
The prototype of the next warfighter is already on the drawing boards for 2020 and 2030. These soldier prototypes in terms of equipment are a vast improvement in terms of protection, mobility, situational awareness (SA) and communications capabilities compared to todays soldiers currently patrolling Iraq and Afghanistan.
Future technical capabilities include developments for the soldiers:
- Physical Attributes where Super Human Strength is achieved
- Smart Cloth Body Armor
The most pertinent for satellite communications lies in the warfighters helmet, or what the U.S. Army describes as Information Central. Plans for capabilities include:
- All around protection with built-in gas mask
- 180° emissive visor display
- Stereoscopic night-vision cameras with images and incoming tactical data projected onto or inside of visor
- Integrated tactical processing (e.g., maps, routes, SA data)
- High data rate (GB/sec) communications
- Microelectronic/optics combat sensor suite that provides 360° situational awareness
- Integrated small arms protection in selected locations
- Satellite communications
- Voice activated commands for various suit systems
- Instant voice translator lets soldiers speak in various languages
In terms of where current capabilities are, most of the systems outlined above are said to already exist in helmets worn by pilots of fighter jets, while computer voice translation is currently in development. As the priority set by Robert Gates decreases the procurement of fighter jets in favor of UAVs, the number of helmets where SATCOMS will have a market base will rest with the soldier on the ground rather than the pilot in the sky. This is good news for helmet manufacturers since the addressable market will rise given that there are more U.S. Army and the Marines ground soldiers compared to fighter pilots.
Future SATCOM Requirements
In tapping the future market, SATCOM systems in the space and ground segments will have to incorporate these features:
- Small antenna systems and other military frequencies that support small antenna systems. L-band is a natural fit, and there may be a play for Ku-band, Ka-band and X-band. Reconnaissance data from UAVs that run on Ku-, Ka- and X-band will have to re-transmit on frequencies supporting small antennas or these frequencies will have to develop small and lightweight antenna systems that fit the soldiers back. The antenna systems should likewise seamlessly point to the satellite. The nexgen soldier will have a computer embedded in his/her suit located at the base of the soldiers back, which will be connected to a local and wide-area network for data transfer. Small antenna systems in L-, Ku-, Ka- and X-band, as well as military frequencies that are housed in the computer itself, will be quite compelling.
- Broadband Capability Sensor and tactical data will (at a minimum) take the form of video files, maps and other high-bandwidth content. The helmet will combine rapid information transfer, accelerate and improve situational awareness that sees all, hears all, and can relay this information to all. The system is envisioned to be equipped with a 17 internal virtual reality display viewed by the soldier, a hologram projector viewed by others, and satellite and video communications available for view to all, including both field and command garrison staff.
- In-building and Foliage Penetration As mentioned above, the enemy disappears into mountains, caves, urban enclaves and jungles. The nexgen soldier has to be able to engage the enemy under such conditions. MUOS, a planned narrowband military satellite system, will have the capability to penetrate foliage and buildings. The drawback when looking at the future warfighter is that MUOS is a narrowband system, but communication links for the Future Force Warrior are envisioned to reach Gbps of throughput. Moreover, although most capabilities in jet pilot helmets already exist today, conditions in the sky for communications are vastly different from communications on the ground where buildings, foliage and other conditions prevail. It is thus technically complicated to re-apply fighter pilot helmets to ground troop helmets.
- Real-time Tactical data in theater has to be real-time, or at worst near real-time. The nexgen soldier is envisioned to be part of a small netted unit/team with robust team communications. Capabilities and assets will include state-of-the-art distributed and fused (thermal and image intensification) sensors, organic tactical intelligence/collection assets, enhanced situational understanding, embedded training, on-the-move planning, and linkage to other Future Force assets.
- Redundancy Given the sophistication and collaboration of activities and capabilities, redundancy will have to be integrated in the entire communications system or network architecture. This means that military and commercial satellite assets should be able to seamlessly switch signals when one system is down or overloaded.
It would appear that a system that features small antenna/broadband capability/able to penetrate foliage, buildings, caves and jungles is still not in existence today. Current systems as well as the upcoming MUOS military system offer a combination of features, specifically small antenna/broadband or small antenna/able to penetrate foliage, buildings, caves and jungles, but not all three features are currently available or currently planned.
The closest market that approximates the future warfighter lies in the communications-on-the-move (COTM) and communications-on-the-pause (COTP) market. However, it is quite limited today, given the technological hurdles that exist. The COTM and COTP markets are projected to grow at steady levels; however, the market potential, particularly if or when the nexgen soldier can be tapped, is expected to be at much higher levels. In a sense, an offering that can incorporate all the capabilities outlined above will be a game changer that transforms the market dynamics.
Coming To A Head
At the heart, so to speak, of the nexgen warfighter will be his/her head. And this is where SATCOMS will be most pertinent in terms of establishing a unique value proposition. Current satellite systems fall short in supporting the nexgen soldier as envisioned by the Pentagon. The good news is the funds to support nexgen capabilities will be available given the budget request of the Obama Administration.
More importantly, the policy to support such capabilities for the nexgen warfighter is beginning to be firmly established. Current and planned technical capabilities for satellite systems, including MUOS, still fall short of the requirements of the prototype soldier for 2020. As such, a golden opportunity exists today in developing and enabling the Future Force Warrior. The initiative can come in the form of a unique satellite deployed by a commercial player, a hosted payload agreed to by the military and commercial operator, or via a partnership between the satellite manufacturer, the satellite operator and the military entity.
Whichever form of payload is contracted, procured and launched will dramatically change market demand for space capacity as well as developments in ground terminals, software and application suites.
About the author
Mr. del Rosario covers the Asia Pacific region and is a senior member of the consulting team where he focuses his research on quantitative modeling, data verification, and market forecasting for the wireless industry and satellite communications sector. He conducts ongoing research with specialization in policy analysis, regional economic indicators, regulatory initiatives and end user demand trends. In addition to authoring numerous syndicated reports in his areas of focus, Mr. del Rosario has been involved in a wide range of strategic consulting projects. He has advised clients on market trends, implications, and strategies on such diverse topics as WiMAX, mobile communications, mobile video, 3G offerings, terrestrial microwave services, IPTV, and more.