DoD looks to balloons and UAVs to solve satellite weaknesses

Published 30 January 2007

Navy plans a 2009 roll-out for the $7 billion Mobile User Objective System satellite brigade, but DoD lacks funding for the receivers; Global Hawk and Combat Skycat seem promising, but short-term, alternatives

The singer Lou Reed once had a minor hit with the song “Satellite of Love.” There is no such thing as the “satellite of death,” but such might be a proper way to describe Department of Defense orbiters, seeing as that they assist the military in surveilling and targetting its enemies. There is just one problem: Despite a plan by the Navy to launch a new generation of communications satellites for mobile users — known as Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellites — in 2009, DoD has no funds for satellite receivers due to a “funding shift” within the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) program.

Without the neccesary funding, DoD officials worry that they will have “$7 billion worth of satellites in orbit” but no JTRS radios with which to communicate with them. The MUOS satellites do carry a legacy communications package, so it is possible that that some Army tactical users will be able to use the satellites, but this is hardly satisfying. As a result, military planners are already spending $1 billion a year on commercial broadband satellite service, and there are now plans afoot to use high-tech balloons and UAVs to bridge the communications gaps. These efforts may include the deployment of the Combat Skysat balloon, which operates at an altitude of 65,000 to 90,000 feet and provides coverage of 60 miles. Another option being considered is the use of Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk — a versitile craft if there ever was one.

-read more in Bob Brewin’s FCW report