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DOD turns to commercial satellites

To slake its wartime thirst for bandwidth, the Pentagon has snapped up the services of commercial satellite companies.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The war in Iraq is the most digitally intensive conflict ever, with virtually every tank, plane, Humvee and — in many cases — bombs and missiles linked by satellite to sometimes distant combat control rooms. The flood of data that orchestrates this gritty fight swamps amounts seen even just a year ago in Afghanistan, by far outstripping the relay capacity of Department of Defense satellites.

TO SLAKE ITS GROWING thirst for bandwidth, the Pentagon has snapped up the services of commercial satellite companies. And its commanders are still not satisfied.

“When you are in combat, you want more of everything: You want more bullets, you want more beans, you want more bits,” said Tim Bonds, an analyst at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.

More bandwidth means the ability to put more surveillance planes in the air to beam live video to the dispatchers of bombs and missiles. It also means uncongested conduits for encrypted conversation with battlefield units.

“We’re very reliant on it,” said Army Capt. John Morgan with the 22nd Mobile Public Affairs Attachment at Camp Doha in Kuwait. “What the capacity does is allow us to respond much more quickly to the situation on the ground, whether it’s a downed aircraft or assessing what effect our ground operations are having.”

When the Army’s 4th Infantry Division hits the ground — the unit was en route to the Persian Gulf Thursday — bandwidth demand will jump further. The 4th is the Army’s most technologically advanced division, with wireless connections between tanks and other ground vehicles that connect via satellite with commanders far to the rear.

THIRST FOR BANDWIDTH From the first Gulf War a dozen years ago to today in Iraq, the Pentagon’s demand for bandwidth has increased roughly tenfold, U.S. Air Force Space Command spokesman Michael Kucharek said.

The military’s own satellites carry a smaller and smaller percentage of its communications traffic. Commercial providers ferry the bulk.

During the 1991 conflict, Pentagon and NATO satellites carried an estimated 85 percent of military communications. Not even a decade later, during the Kosovo crisis, the percentages flip-flopped, said Bonds.

That’s about what it remains today.

The situation owes in part to the Pentagon’s increased “comfort” in relying on commercial providers to carry encrypted military data, Bonds said. Among them are PanAmSat Corp., Intelsat Ltd. and Inmarsat Ltd. And Paris-based Eutelsat SA recently won a Pentagon contract.

One big source of bandwidth thirst is the growing reliance on videoconferencing to keep distant war planners in close contact with front-line leaders.

Video beamed from Predator and Global Hawk drones is also bandwidth-intensive.

“It starts to eat up a lot of bandwidth when you talk imagery,” Kucharek said. Some of the military’s jam-resistant satellites relay data at a pokey 2.6 kilobits per second, or less than 5 percent the speed of a 56 kbps dial-up connection to the Internet.

“That’s fine for voice, but trying pushing video through that,” Kucharek added.

PLENTY OF EXCESS CAPACITY For the military, the increased use of commercial satellites comes at a time when the market has significant excess capacity.

In recent years, the industry had scrambled to beef up its satellite fleet to accommodate projected growth in commercial need for bandwidth. That need largely failed to materialize after the dot-com crash, analysts said.

The military has since taken up much of the slack: Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. government has become the largest customer in the commercial satellite market, said Tom Eaton, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Wilton, Conn.-based PanAmSat.

The Department of Defense was not able to break out how much it spends on commercial satellite services, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Gary Keck said.

The Defense Department’s use of commercial satellites, even as it launches more “birds” of its own, will likely continue: Projections call for a five- or six-fold jump in military communications by 2010, Bonds said.

Help will also come from advanced technologies, including laser communications and new Internet protocols, which could increase the military’s bandwidth anywhere from 10 to 100 times current capacity, Air Force Undersecretary Peter Teets recently told a House subcommittee.

But for now, the Pentagon is much like that PC user who craves a faster Internet connection to speed surfing and downloads.

During the war, the military by necessity must prioritize the communications it relays by satellite, Kucharek said.

What suffers? U.S. commanders refused to discuss that.

“We don’t want to tell the world what our capabilities and limitations are, because that would help the enemy,” the Army’s Morgan said.

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