Space: September 3, 2003

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On August 29th, the U.S. launched the 14th, and last DSCS communications satellite into orbit. But as the Iraq campaign demonstrated, the DSCS system is already obsolete, or at least overloaded. Even though the Department of Defense had five times as much satellite communications capacity as it had in 1991, there wasn't enough to supply all the users during the Iraq operations. As a result, enormous amounts of civilian satellite communications capacity had to be bought. The civilian satellites supplied 84 percent of the military needs during the Iraq fighting. There is a new, higher capacity, military communications satellite network going up (Wideband Gap Filler) starting in 2005, but this will not supply all the capacity needed either. More attention is being paid to the use of aircraft or UAVs flying high over combat zones, acting as low flying communications satellites. This has been proposed before, as there is no problem with it technically. The satellite communications gear on the ground doesn't care if their "satellite" is 40,000 feet up, or 400 miles. As long as it receives and sends signals of the proper frequency and strength, the data gets through. Using aircraft is expensive, in the short run, but a lot cheaper in the long run. The DSCS network of 14 satellites cost over four billion dollars. A half dozen UAVs carrying satellite transponders and electronics cost a tenth of that and, if they are UAVs (the preferred vehicle), can be kept in storage when not needed. UAVs also have longer endurance than manned aircraft and are generally cheaper to operate. Another approach is to equip aerial refueling aircraft with satellite-like communications equipment, and let them pass data, as well as gas, when they are airborne over the combat zone. A form of this method  has already been introduced. There has to be more satellite communications capacity, because it is so much more effective than ground based radio equipment, and is essential for the kind of operations that were so successful in Iraq.

 


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