Military turning to commercial satellites

Commercial satellite companies, already important to military communications and intelligence, can expect their role to expand in coming years, a prominent military leader said today.

Speaking at a conference organized by British satellite firm Inmarsat Ltd., retired Air Force Maj. General Robert Dickman, who now serves as the service's deputy for military space, said that technological and economic considerations are driving the Defense Department to make greater use of commercial satellites.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, Dickman said, the Air Force's use of satellite communications surged from a maximum capacity of 100 megabits/sec to about 800 megabits/sec. That makes clear the need for the technology, he said.

"The synergy between being able to draw on commercial [satellites] and retain some of our military capability is important," he said.

As an analogy, Dickman noted that military personnel usually travel on commercial airliners. But the armed forces maintain a fleet of aircraft to use when commercial carriers can't meet their needs.

"We've learned a couple of economic lessons," he said of satellite technology. "If you're going to use a system to 100 percent capacity for its entire life, it's much cheaper to own it." For applications that are less intensive, commercial satellite capacity is available for lease.

"We need to change our business model to make it easier for the private sector to do business with us," he said. "We need to balance the business cases and we need to understand where we're going. There are a lot of ways to get the job done, and we'd be foolish not to use all of them."

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