The Department of Defense’s ‘pivot to LEO’ is a win for the commercial satellite industry

According to a new report by Quilty Analytics, which is a market research firm, the US Defense Department’s interest in the low Earth orbit (LEO) space services is a plus for commercial operators and satellite manufacturers of the broadband constellations. “The Department of Defense’s LEO pivot is quite real,” said analyst Chris Quilty in the report. Geosynchronous (GEO) communications spacecraft positioned 36,000 kms above the equator have been used by the US Defense Department for decades. The Iridium LEO network, which offers narrowband data transmission and satellite phone services, also serves the military.

DoD is considering deploying its own LEO constellation, which is being directed by the SDA (Space Development Agency). Separately, the Department of Defense intends to purchase private (commercial) LEO broadband services from Starlink, Telesat, OneWeb, and other companies.

According to the report, the US government spends around $1.2 billion per year on commercial satellite communications. This mostly consists of geosynchronous satellites, and also SES’s medium Earth orbit satcom and Iridium’s LEO services. The Transport Layer, SDA’s widely deployed broadband constellation, is expected to feature hundreds of satellites. According to the report, this will open up enormous prospects for satellite producers, both traditional and non-traditional. Commercial LEO broadband systems will “supplement the SDA constellation, resulting in powerful hybrid networks that integrate commercial and DoD space assets,” according to the Pentagon.

“Though there could be lowered purchases during the latter half of the current decade if proliferated LEO wholly achieves its performance and other objectives,” Quilty said, DoD’s investments in the LEO systems are not going to have an immediate impact on current procurements of the satcom capacity from the commercial geostationary orbit satellites.

Quilty believes that SDA’s program will “help foster a robust ecosystem of commercial enterprises that is constantly striving to develop new technology.” The first Transport Layer satellites are expected to be launched in 2022. Quilty warned that SDA’s procurement strategy, which relies on integrating technologies and products from numerous vendors, could pose certain concerns.

According to the paper, “Integration issues have consistently caused schedule delays for the DoD in complicated satcom projects, particularly with ground terminals.” “An unusually large number of providers creates new technological hurdles.”

When the Space Force incorporates SDA in October 2022, one unknown is whether existing priorities will shift, “risking reviving slow and bureaucratic DoD procurement habits,” according to Quilty. Contractor objections, some of which have recently occurred, and supply chain concerns attributable to COVID-19 which are affecting the whole space industry might further derail the agency’s ambitions.

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