The Pentagon got its cell phone bill, and the kids have been using too much data again.
Iridium, which owns a fleet of communication satellites, announced it has reached a $738 million deal with the Pentagon to provide “enhanced mobile satellite services,” essentially battlefield cellphones for American troops.
The deal with Iridium shows an issue faced by U.S. Space Command in Colorado Springs: The military can’t build communication satellites fast enough to keep up with roaring demand.
During wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, America quickly found its fleet of communication satellites overwhelmed. Every Army battalion these days goes to war with satellite communications gear. And all those teleconferences, complete with video and PowerPoint slides were just too much for the old Defense satellite Communication System and its cousin the Global Broadcast Service.
To deal with demand, Space Command rushed a new fleet of communications birds, called Wideband Global Satcom, into production.
Each of the new satellites had had as much communication capability as the entire constellation of spacecraft they augmented.
But even 10 of those new birds, bringing 100 times the communication bandwidth that the military had on 9/11, haven’t sated the satellite communications appetite of troops on the ground.
The military didn’t give up, launching a $7 billion effort for the Advanced Extremely High Frequency Satellite constellation, which brings a massive, but classified, upgrade to secure communications for troops on the ground. The sixth of those satellites is being prepared for launch.
U.S. Space Command under Gen. Jay Raymond, though, is also examining a path forward that’s increasingly open to using commercial satellites for military communication. Experts say there’s little risk to the commercial option as long as the military encrypts its signals so no one listens in.
Started late last year, the command has commissioned a series of reviews to figure out how to accommodate the military’s insatiable need for satellite communications with a model that looks at all options.
The military will still have plenty of its own birds. Design is underway for a new generation of communications satellites that can overcome adversaries who seek to jam signals and a new fleet of satellites to handle the military’s most classified data is envisioned.
Also on the drawing board is a new, more capable, series of the Wideband satellites that have helped shoulder the wartime load.
But the growth in demand for satellites over the battlefield for satellite data on the battlefield won’t slow anytime soon. And it’s driven by a lot more than chatty troops.
There are drones over our troops in combat. But what has been a few robots in combat will become a flood in the years ahead.
The Navy has a series of refueling tankers that don’t have pilots on order.
The Air Force this year unveiled the experimental XQ-58 drone, a stealthy unmanned fighter that could some day fly many of the combat missions now given to F-16s.
And the Army has its own plans. Someday, there will be unmanned tanks.
But all of that gear, despite it’s “unmanned” reputation, isn’t really operating outside human control. Instead it will be handled by troops on computers far from the battlefield. And the military’s cellphone bill will keep climbing.
The new American robotic way of battle will spare American lives while defeating enemies.
And it won’t happen without the space troops in Colorado Springs figuring out communications satellites of the future.