The key that defense planners tout to maintaining the edge over the enemy is reliable Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS, are now battlefield proven for ISR, courtesy of the decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by the U.S. and NATO forces, and their numbers have seen an unprecedented increase during the same period, providing the satellite communications industry a lucrative source of revenues. The recent intensification of war in the Middle-East and geopolitical tensions in the Asia-Pacific region prompted the U.S. to increase its UAS flights by 50 percent in the next two years, and this is only the tip of the iceberg.
In 2011, when defense budget cuts were made after U.S. and NATO troop pullout from Afghanistan and Iraq, there was still a spark in the gloomy defense and intelligence markets for Satcom operators: UAS. The U.S. Government kept funding UAS programs for its Navy, Air Force, Army, and Homeland Security, with other nations realizing their importance and funding or purchasing high performance HALE and MALE UAS like the Global Hawk, Predator, and Reaper. These UAS, capable of flying continuously for more than 24 hours at high altitudes, have rapidly increased in their sophistication to assist the forces in hunting and targeting enemies, providing real-time high definition slow motion video, and for tactical purposes. These trends point to a key question – how much satellite bandwidth do these machines require, and how much demand will they create in the future?
UAS are ‘bandwidth-hungry’, partly due to payload needs and partly due to the need for a reliable beyond-line-of-sight data link for avoiding accidents. To meet such requirements, a good link budget is needed that necessitates a high power two-way signal. Thus, despite a requirement of perhaps 4MHz only, up to 18 MHz of capacity may need to be purchased for a single UAS flight operation. In the table below, NSR summarizes the bandwidth requirements of some of the popular UAS models in operation.
With almost 1,500 active in-service UAS units currently (~40 percent operated by the U.S. alone), and this number expected to more than double in the next 10 years, the burgeoning bandwidth needs cannot be met by military satellites communications (protected Milsatcom). The conflicts in Syria and Iraq, which have spilled over to the many countries in the Middle-East and Africa, in addition to their regional conflicts, strengthens NSR’s belief that UAS and their Satcom demand has nowhere to go but up.
Add to it the simmering situation in the South China Sea, border conflicts in Asia and Eastern Europe, and U.S. Government’s intense lobbying at the ongoing WRC-15 for persuading global governments to allocate Ku- or Ka-band satellite spectrum for command and control of UAS, it can be said without a doubt that UAS are here to stay.
Taking all such drivers and constraints into consideration, NSR’s UAS Satcom & Imaging Markets, 2nd Edition report forecasts global capacity demand will grow at a CAGR of 9.3 percent, generating demand of 122 TPEs for FSS operators and additional 33 Gbps of HTS capacity by the end of 2024.
The switch to cheap HTS capacity is however imminent, as global coverage through Inmarsat’s GX and Intelsat’s EPIC becomes available, and current ‘cost-effective’ solutions like FSS Ku-band inclined satellite capacity slowly starts running out of favor for supporting high bandwidth, requiring payloads like Synthetic Aperture Radars, GMTI and Weather Radar. However, this transition is expected to be slow as airborne Satcom terminal retrofits are expensive and time taking affairs, leading to FSS Ku-band maintaining its hegemony in this market, with good gains made by FSS Ka and X-bands over the forecast period.
- Defense and security needs are pushing countries across the globe to invest in UAS programs, which are expected to drive SATCOM capacity demand through this decade and provide opportunities for operators to generate revenues.
- The bulk of this demand is expected to arise in the Middle-East & Africa and Asian regions due to armed conflicts and geo-political tensions.
- Both FSS and HTS capacity demand is expected to grow steadily till 2024 to meet the bandwidth demands of these UAS, which keeps increasing by the day, with Ku-band continuing as king of this niche market.
Thus, interest from all over the world to adopt UAS in fleets for carrying out ISR operations clearly implies—UAS are here to stay and their growth will fuel SATCOM bandwidth demand throughout the next decade.