Griffin: DoD Can’t Rely on Commercial Satellite Communications

Mike Griffin

WASHINGTON: Communications satellite constellations such as those being launched by SpaceX, OneWeb, Telesat and Amazon, haven’t proven they can make money so the Pentagon needs to build its own Low Earth Orbit (LEO) network, says DoD Research & Engineering czar Mike Griffin.

This puts Griffin somewhat at odds with the Air Force and Army, who are going full steam ahead to try to leverage the new LEO satcom systems. But Griffin told an audience at the Chamber of Commerce’s launch seminar today that, in his assessment, the business case for commercial broadband and Internet mega-constellations in LEO “is a tough one to close. I won’t say that it is permanently un-closable … but it is a tough business case.”

This means, he said, that there is a need for “a national security communications substructure to any future architecture that we might either buy ourselves or rent from other people. …The national security community has an absolute need for guaranteed communications. It has to be guaranteed in wartime. …It has to be guaranteed in a harsh environment, manmade and natural. It has to be, to the extent we can do so, secure.”

This is why, he said, the Space Development Agency (SDA)’s second priority — after building a LEO-based missile tracking constellation aimed at low-flying hypersonic cruise missiles — is to build a data communications ‘transport layer’ to link satellites to shooters on the ground.

The data transport satellites are only one part of SDA’s nascent National Defense Space Architecture that comprises seven layers of satellite constellations and ground stations. According to SDA’s July request for proposal, the Space Transport Layer will be a “Global, persistent, low-latency data and communications proliferated ‘mesh’ network to provide 24×7 global communications.”

Griffin’s seeming skepticism about the future market viability of commercial ventures to provide global broadband and Internet services is in stark contrast to the overt enthusiasm for so-called ‘proliferated LEO architectures’ bubbling out of the Air Force and the Army.

The Air Force has a number of efforts to define how large commercial satellite constellations in LEO can be tapped to provide alternatives to current capabilities and functions provided by small numbers of very expensive, ‘exquisite’ satellites that Air Force Gen. John Hyten, now vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has famously referred to as “fat, juicy targets.” The hope is that the Air Force can reduce costs and improve resiliency via investing in commercial LEO systems, rather than building its own constellations.

For example, the Air Force is currently experimenting with using SpaceX’s Starlink constellation to provide direct data links to various service aircraft under a program nicknamed Global Lightning. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) program, formally named Defense Experimentation Using the Commercial Space Internet (DEUCSI), is one of the central pillars of Air Force acquisition czar Will Roper’s efforts at digital transformation to underpin Multi-Domain Operations.

SpaceX’s Starlink satellites

Likewise, Army leaders are practically begging the commercial satcom industry to help them figure out how to obtain low-cost, low-latency, 24/7 communications for soldiers in the field. In particular, Army leaders want industry to help develop technologies to simplify the receivers required for access to communications satellites, including commercial broadband mega-constellations in LEO.

“We see the need to expand beyond the communications capabilities that we have today, and we are very excited about emergence of opportunities in LEO and MEO space,” Joe Welch, deputy program executive officer for command, control and communications-tactical (C3-T), said Oct. 16 during a presentation at the annual Association of the United States Army (AUSA) conference.  The C3-T office procures and integrates the tactical components of the Army’s networks, one of the Army’s ‘Big Six’ modernization priorities.

The Army has been experimenting with small sats to support ground troops, and is also eyeing how it might leverage commercial technologies, he said. As a first step, he added, the Army has been experimenting with terminals to link to commercial LEO and MEO satellites, with the goal of developing a prototype terminal by 2023.

However, Griffin’s and the two services’ approaches are not necessarily in conflict, Janice Starzyk, vice president of commercial space for Bryce Technologies, told Breaking D today.

Griffin’s skepticism about market sustainability is “fully reasonable,” she said, noting that two companies planning mega-constellations in lower orbits went out of business (LeoSat and Audacy) in the last two weeks. On the other hand, she said, the services are being offered access to satellites already being launched and they are wise to see if they can take advantage. The key — if DoD were to invest early in one or more operators, it would change the market dynamic.

“I agree with both sides,” she said. “You either have to build it yourself, or you have to pay, to back someone to build it.”

But, for his part, Griffin doesn’t seem interested in making those investments — at least for commercial satcom.