Space: July 6, 2004


Addicted to commercial communications satellites for combat operations around the globe, the U.S. Department of Defense is trying to find ways to protect them. Commercial satellites have been increasingly used by the military since the 1991 Gulf War. DoD is studying the vulnerabilities of both commercial satellites and their ground stations in cooperation with other agencies such as Homeland Security and the State Department. 

Among the issues that need to be addressed are whether a US-owned transponder on a commercial satellite controlled by a multi-national consortium, can be considered sovereign (American) territory if the satellite is attacked. While DoD is investing heavily in next-generation military communication satellites, it will continue to  rely heavily on commercial vendors until the end of the decade, if not longer. During the 2003 Iraq operations, U.S. forces transmitted data at a rate up to 3.2 gigabits per second (roughly the capacity of a thousand households equipped with either high-speed cable modem or DSL connections) with commercial capacity providing around 82 percent of the capacity. By 2010, projected capacity/needs will grow to at least 14 gigabits per second. 

A typical communications satellite has anywhere from 18 to 24 transponders, with each capable of relaying data at speeds of from 45 to 90 Megabits per second, depending on the frequencies and equipment used. However, with rental fees anywhere from $1 to 2.5 million dollars per month per transponder, satellite capacity doesn't sit idle waiting for the next war to break out. There are about 240 geostationary communications satellites in orbit around the globe. By comparison, a single modern undersea cable can operate at 60 gigabits per second and with equipment upgrades go to 640 gigabits per second. 

DoD would also like to change procurement practices to better use existing commercial vendors. For example, current regulations dont allow DoD to buy commercial services under multi-year contracts, preventing it from getting arrangements that proved the best value for services Doug Mohney


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