by David Mulholland
The major European countries are committed to improving their satellite communications capabilities through both dedicated military and dual-use systems. The U.K., France, Spain, Italy and NATO already have dedicated military communications satellites and Germany is planning to launch its own soon. The greater bandwidth required by the post-Cold War focus on digitizing the battlefield and expeditionary warfare have stiffened their resolve to continue to improve communications.
The experience of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq has highlighted the importance of communications. Even with huge capabilities, the U.S. has run short of communications capability and has leased bandwidth from commercial satellites. The U.K. has experienced similar shortages in communications capacity. Modern military operations depend on communications.
In large operations and in mountains, this means satellites or aircraft acting as communications relays. While this is well known, the size of the demand took military planners by surprise. In particular, it was not appreciated how much communications capacity is required for other functions, such as logistics.
This is easy to ignore in peacetime. As General Omar Bradley is alleged to have said, amateurs study strategy, professionals study logistics. When countries actually go to war, they abandon their focus on gee whiz programs, such as missile defense, and start looking at the nuts and bolts of military operations, such as communications and armored trucks.
Computer record keeping and reliable communications promises to revolutionize logistics, but all depend on communications. Simply put, people need to be able to place orders and track them. This places huge demands on communications. For instance, convoys in Iraq originally had no satcoms. Troops quickly learned that they could not call for help if attacked. The rear of the convoy would have no idea what was occurring at the front of the convoy.
In addition to armoring trucks, the big upgrade to logistics forces has been the implementation of satcoms. Also, the volume of information being sent regarding supply is enormous. In Iraq, large portions of satcoms are being used over civilian networks. This may seem risky, but commanders on the ground believe there is a greater risk posed by the logistics system not working than from enemy intercepts.
As always, locating the money for large military programs in Europe is difficult, given the tight European military budgets. However, recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, where soldiers and marines biggest demand is better communications, have pushed European militaries to bolster their telecoms capabilities.
Despite cash constraints, Europe has a long history of military satellite communications. The British Skynet program launched in 1969 was the first, followed by NATO in 1976, Frances Syracuse system in 1984, Spains Hispasat/Secomsat in 1992, and Italys Sicral in 2001. Germanys SatcomBw is planned for 2009. The U.K., France, Spain, Italy and Germany are all either planning or in the midst of upgrading their satcoms.
The rising profile of space is clearly seen with Germany, which had no satellites until 2005 when the SAR-Lupe radar reconnaissance satellite came on-line. The country will have its own secure satellite communications in 2009 when its first SatcomBw begins operating.
Even cash-strapped Russia is working to improve its military satellite communications. The country has a large constellation of satellites; however, many of them are past their design life and need to be replaced. In response, Russian satellite makers are trotting out small satellites as a low-cost option for maintaining capability.
One of the chief hurdles for the European countries in developing their space assets is funding. Europes aggregate spending on military space programs, which combines reconnaissance and communications, is about 500 million to 1 billion ($700 million to $1.4 billion) a year for the next 10 years. Compare that to the U.S. Air Forces 2008 budget request for $11 billion for unclassified space programs, an increase of $1.5 billion over the previous budget. The increase itself is larger than Europes entire military space budgets put together. France, Italy and Germany are also spending money on reconnaissance satellites.
Paris believes that if Europe wants to have a working military space system, it must increase spending to at least 2 billion ($2.6 billion) a year by 2012-15, but European military budgets are falling and there appears to be little political will to devote money to military space.
French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie earlier this year called for a 50 percent rise in military space spending across Europe, which would bring Frances military space budget to 650 million ($900 million) a year. She proposed that Europe develop a comprehensive military space system built around mutual dependence on nationally owned satellites.
Seeking to save money, the U.K. has offloaded buying and operating its military satellite communications equipment onto the private sector. The SkyNet 5 communications satellites are not owned and operated by the U.K. Ministry of Defence, but rather by Paradigm Secure Communications, a U.K. subsidiary of EADS, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company.
The U.K. MoD has a 20-year contract worth about £2 billion ($4 billion) with Paradigm for communications services. As excess capacity was built into the SkyNet 5 satellites, the business plan has been to sell that capacity to others. The company has already signed deals with the Netherlands, Canada, Portugal and NATO. Paradigm is also operating the SkyNet 4 constellation.
Spain has also involved the private sector in its satellite implementations. HISDESAT Servicios Estrategicos was set up by Hispasat to run the Xtar-Eur and Spainsat satellites. A web of private and government-owned companies owns Hispasat. The Royal Danish Navy has already purchased some capacity from the Xtar-Eur satellite.
Some question how such systems will work during wartime, given that demand for satellite communications has skyrocketed on the battlefield. In Iraq, for example, 75 to 80 percent of U.S. military satellite communications are over civil satellites because the military satellites do not possess enough bandwidth. If that is the case with the U.S., how will agreements such as the one with Paradigm work? Will the U.K. demand all of the satellites capacity during contingencies? This is further complicated by the fact that other users are likely to be fighting alongside U.K. forces, which would make depriving them of their satellite communications self-defeating as well as terribly bad manners.
As a way of stretching money further, a number of European countries are pooling their assets. The U.K.s SkyNet 5, Frances Syracuse 3, and Italys Sicral satellites will jointly provide NATOs new satcoms.
The NATO alliance has inked a long-term lease of about a third of Syracuse 3As nine transponders of super-high frequency (SHF) transmissions under a contract with France, Britain and Italy.
The contract for SHF capacity is valued at 380 million ($530 million), of which France is providing about 45 percent through Syracuse 3. Britains Skynet spacecraft are providing 45 percent, and Italys Sicral satellites are providing 10 percent. Italy is also providing the ultra-high frequency (UHF) capacity contracted with NATO under a separate contract valued at 70 million ($97 million). Similarly, countries within Europe are leasing each other capacity.
For instance, Germany is leasing the equivalent of two SHF transponders on Syracuse 3A for five years until its two SatcomBw military communications satellites are online. Belgium is also leasing a small amount of capacity, leaving French forces with only 45 percent of Syracuse 3A for their own use. The U.K.s Skynet 5 is leasing capacity to NATO, the Netherlands, Holland, Portugal and France.
France and Italy are also looking at a largely military dual use geosynchronous satellite called Athena-Fidus. It would be capable of very high rates of data transmission and could augment or even replace some of the Syracuse and Sicral satellites. But there are ongoing concerns over the price of the system, especially its ground segments.
Ever vague, Russias Armed Forces plan to begin using a new-generation command and communications systems by 2015, which will presumable include new communications satellites. This is according to a statement last August by Sergei Ivanov, first deputy prime minister in charge of the defense industry. He was quoted as saying, In line with a state armaments program for 2007-2015, we have planned the outfitting of Army and Navy units with new command and communications systems. The former defense minister said the plans were drafted in 2002, when the Defense Ministry pressed for the need to modernize communications systems, particularly for battlefield operations.
The major European countries are forging ahead with military satcoms programs despite tight budgets as part of their plans to continue transforming their militaries into expeditionary forces that take advantage of the advances in computing and communications technologies. The recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have underscored the tremendous demand that modern militaries have for flexible communications when deployed. In the past, satcoms were seen as a nice-to-have but are now increasingly viewed as a must-have for operations.