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NATO behind schedule on satellite capacity order, now hopes for 2017 decision

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LONDON — The NATO alliance is so far behind schedule in contracting for next-generation satellite communications capacity that it now must consider extending its current contract beyond the scheduled end in 2019, a senior NATO official said Nov. 10.

The official, Gregory B. Edwards, director of infrastructure services at the NATO Communications and Information Agency (NCIA), said the agency would prefer not to continue the current contract because it no longer satisfies NATO’s growing satellite bandwidth requirements.

Among other disadvantages, the contract that began in 2005 with Britain, France and Italy, which leases capacity on their national military satellites, does not include EHF-/Ka-band bandwidth, which will be central to NATO’s future satcom needs.

The current contract delivers UHF narrowband capacity, still in high demand by NATO; and SHF-/X-band links, which constitute the majority of the current bandwidth used by NATO.

The 28-nation NATO — to become 29 nations in 2017 with the accession of Montenegro — wants to add EHF bandwidth for highly protected services to provide higher-speed connectivity to smaller terminals.

With Luxembourg added, eight NATO nations have military satcom

Eight NATO nations either have or are building satellite capacity for military communications: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey and the United States.

All presumably would compete to lease capacity to the NATO alliance, either to generate revenue or to offset their other NATO obligations.

The newest member of the satellite providers club, Luxembourg, is building a military telecommunications satellite with commercial satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg expressly for that reason. GovSat-1 is scheduled for launch in 2017.

The Luxembourg-SES GovSat joint venture on Nov. 8 announced that it had won a contract to provide Ku-band satellite capacity from the current SES fleet for NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance system even before its satellite is launched. The multi-year contract includes capacity-management services to support NATO Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles over the contract’s operational region.

NATO has been preparing for several years the contract to succeed the current agreement with Britain, France and Italy. The alliance secured from its governments a commitment of some 1.5 billion euros ($1.7 billion) for the period from 2020 to 2034, including 400 million euros for ground infrastructure, including ground terminals, modems and network control equipment.

But pulling the trigger on the contract has proved complicated and now will not occur before some time in 2017, which in long-term satellite-procurement terms is the 11th hour.

Addressing the Global Milsatcom conference here, organized by SMi Group, Edwards acknowledged the problem.

Many hurdles to clear before a NATO invitation to tender

“It all has to start before the end of 2019,” Edwards said. “Some would say NATO is already late. Our strategy is to commit to CP 130 in the first part of next year.”

CP 130 is the document that sets out NATO’s bandwidth, coverage and power requirements.

Also required is what NATO terms a Type-B Cost Estimate, which lays out the overall acquisition strategy and gives “all milsatcom-capable nations with suitable space programs and payloads a chance to contribute, and finds consensus for the procurement on the NATTO Investment Committee,” Edwards said. “It’s basically a business case to show you have your act together.”

While these procedures are under way, NCIA will write a detailed procurement specification including leased and managed capacity, he said. Managed capacity is when the customer gives the provider responsibility for managing the contract as a service and not a simple lease of capacity on a given satellite.

Seeking ‘a good family discussion’

“We want to get this done in early 2017,” Edwards said. “We’d like to have a good family discussion about this before we put out an invitation to bid, to talk about the requirements. We have to come forward with the best deal for NATO.”

Roberts said NATO is under no obligation to make room in its contract for every member nation’s satellite capacity. But it appeared clear from his remarks that the decision is more complicated than a simple value-for-money calculation, and will require a consensus.

Asked if the current contract could be extended, he said:

“That is one of the options. It has to be, because if there are not 29 nations that agree to a way forward, we have to do something. But we really don’t want to go there, for obvious reasons — starting with the threat. We’re looking for an opportunity to take the first step [in securing the capacity increase that’s needed] rather than taking a step to the side.”

NATO expects that it will be able to structure its acquisition so that a core capability is under firm contract and always available. An “Extended Core” would include satellite bandwidth for which contracts are pre-negotiated but are only activated at certain times of high demand — NATO’s twice-yearly military exercises, for example — and subject to availability.

A third category, called “Augmentation,” would include purchases of commercial bandwidth on an as-needed basis.

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NATO behind schedule on satellite capacity order, now hopes for 2017 decision

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