Upgrade needed for battlefield satellite communications in Afghanistan, Iraq

With aging satellites processing as much as 300 percent more than their capacity, the Navy is looking for ways to buy more bandwidth until a new system can be launched.

Satellites that provide key communications for forces fighting on the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq are processing as much as 300 percent more than they were designed to manage and delays have pushed the launch of the first two replacements to December 2011, according to a House report.

The Navy manages the eight-satellite system, which operates on the ultrahigh frequency band and serves tactical users carrying over man-packed radios. Each satellite serves up to 106 users with a speed of 64 kilobits per second for both voice and data channels, for a total of 848 channels serving military units worldwide.

The oldest satellite has been in orbit more than 16 years and the youngest is six years old. Delays in launching the follow-on satellites, under the Mobile User Objective System, mean the Navy and combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq face a serious capacity crunch, the House Armed Services Committee said in its report on the fiscal 2011 Defense Authorization Bill approved this month.

"The delay in delivery of the MUOS system, coupled with the fragility of the current UHF satellite constellation, placed continued availability of sufficient UHF satellite communications necessary to meet the warfighter's needs at risk," the Navy said in a report it submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.

The House committee encouraged the Navy to provide more bandwidth with UHF payloads hosted on commercial satellites. The Senate Armed Services Committee included similar language in a report accompanying its fiscal 2010 Defense bill.

The Navy has leased 15 UHF channels on the commercial SkyNet 5 satellite that Britain's Defense Ministry uses and five channels on the commercial Sicral satellite the Italian Defense Ministry uses, according to the Senate Armed Services Committee report.

The Navy also has secured an additional 50 channels through the Australian Defense Force, which has a lease on a UHF payload on the Intelsat 22 satellite, which is scheduled for launch in 2012.

On May 10, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego, Calif., issued a sources sought notice for more commercial UHF capacity until MUOS goes into operation.

Tim Deaver, vice president of hosted payloads for satellite operator SES World Skies U.S. Government Solutions, said the Navy needs additional capacity because its current fleet of satellites "are one heartbeat away from being brain dead." He agreed with the House committee that tactical users in Afghanistan and Iraq need more UHF channels to perform their missions.

SES can meet the Navy's requirement to provide additional commercial UHF capacity by December 2012 through either subleasing a payload or developing a new dedicated UHF satellite, Deaver said. But to meet the deadline, he said the Navy must complete a contract by the end of June.

A hosted UHF payload on a commercial satellite will provide the Navy with on-orbit UHF servicer faster and cheaper than developing its on satellite, he said.