Rick Lober, vice president and general manager of the defense and intelligence systems division at Hughes Network Systems, recently spoke with ExecutiveBiz on the role satellite technology has in the C4ISR landscape. Lober, who oversees the company's satellite communications technologies, application to the intelligence community and worldwide defense market, describes how satellites fit in and how the focus is shifting to capacity: getting the most out of what is available.
ExecutiveBiz: Where do satellite technologies fit in the C4ISR landscape and why are they so critical to mission success?
Rick Lober: Satellite technology fits across the board in the C4ISR landscape, primarily, because of ubiquitous coverage and it allows beyond line-of-sight communications “” over very long distances and in mountainous regions. We see the technology fitting at ground command units, increasingly at a smaller unit level, for soldiers out in the field, and in the airborne and UAV area to relay data to the ground and to command centers.
ExecutiveBiz: Why exactly do you see them as so critical to mission success?
Rick Lober: In many cases, it's the only way to get information. If you're in rural Afghanistan, you've got mountains around you and you've got to get a signal over those mountains. It's very difficult with most technologies, but satellite allows you to do that. Many times it's the only way to communicate.
ExecutiveBiz: How do Hughes' satellites differ from past technologies?
Rick Lober: We launched our SPACEWAY 3 satellite in 2007, with on-board switching and routing and we'll soon be launching a high-throughput satellite, Jupiter. Hughes Electronics, our former parent company earlier in our history had a long legacy of satellite innovations, starting with Early Bird, launched in 1965.
Until recently, conventional satellites had evolved to a capacity of about one gigabyte per second per satellite. What we're seeing that's different now and what's really driving things is capacity.
Spaceway 3 increased capacity by 10 fold operating in the Ka-band, and Jupiter will take it up by 100 fold. Along the way, we developed packet-switching on board Spaceway 3, called a processed satellite. And with higher capacity comes lower cost per bit, which is really where we're seeing compelling advantages for defense and intelligence applications given the austere budget conditions.
From a bottom line perspective, one thing we really pride ourselves in at Hughes is what we call bandwidth efficiency ““ getting more data over less satellite bandwidth. Satellite bandwidth is a precious resource. It's an expensive resource. If we can get more data over a given satellite, both Hughes and our customers are going to come out way ahead.
ExecutiveBiz: What agencies do you specifically work with for C4ISR?
Rick Lober: The civilian government is doing work in that area, the Defense Department, the intelligence community, and the international community with coalition partners. C4ISR is just one of those areas where I believe we're going to see continued growth or at least limited cuts from a DoD budget perspective.
The ability to have real-time data anywhere, almost instantly, is what's driving a lot of our armed forces today. We're seeing almost an insatiable need for video ““ real-time video from UAVs being transported down to vehicles and/or individual soldiers. I think that applies across the board to multiple agencies whether they are civilian, the DoD, or international.
ExecutiveBiz: How do you work to get the resources in order to bid for work between differing customers?
Rick Lober: Well, my group tends to focus on the customers that are looking for C4ISR applications in a more tactical or militarized type environment. It also focuses on civilian agencies that need communications-on-the-move. We're fortunate in that a lot of the problems are very similar to what we face in the commercial world.
For example, our airborne initiatives are all derived from work that we're doing with a company called Row 44 which is putting Internet access on airplanes, in particular Southwest Airlines. We've been able to leverage that commercial technology to the military space very well.
The same goes for our operating networks that are for commercial ships as the technology can be applied to military ships. Some ruggedization may have to be done, but primarily it's very similar.
ExecutiveBiz: In terms of collecting, disseminating and analyzing intelligence, what do you see as critical needs that need to be addressed in those areas?
Rick Lober: The need won't disappear even as the military draws down from some of the current conflicts and peacekeeping efforts. I think the need for ISR data will stay high for a couple of reasons. We talked about an insatiable demand for video and real-time situational awareness, but there's also a cultural need that's starting to evolve as we recruit young soldiers, seamen, and airmen that grew up in the Internet age. These recruits grew up with social media and with instant messaging and the expectation for instant data anywhere is only going to increase over time.
What can we do? What are the critical issues? First of all, we look at data compression and data reduction. Can we reduce the amount of data being sent? I think there's some clever ways to do that which are being worked on. Hughes' emphasis is really to look at whether we can use the bandwidth we have a lot more efficiently. One of the critical needs that the DoD is facing is the need for satellite capacity.
In the first Gulf War, we were about 80 percent military satellite and 20 percent commercial. In this more recent conflict, it's totally flipped. The DoD is 80 percent dependent on commercial satellites and only 20 percent of the capacity needs are being filled by military satellites. That need for bandwidth is continuing to go up. We're really trying to focus on how bandwidth can be used a lot smarter and a lot more efficiently ““ in particular in the cost cutting environment the government is facing.
ExecutiveBiz: Are there any areas where you see that we're falling short and what can contractors do to enhance both the government and military advantage as we move forward?
Rick Lober: I think one area we're falling short in is that we're not thinking about the cost to operate some of these systems, particularly in terms of bandwidth utilization. We have commands that are developing the products, they are put into use, and then another command goes out and buys the bandwidth. We're not thinking about ways where we can make the product more bandwidth efficient. We're also not thinking about some of the network management issues that are looming as communications increase.
Network management is going to become an even bigger issue over time. Right now, we're sending field technicians, which are employed by the manufacturers, out into places like Iraq and Afghanistan at over $200,000 a year and putting them in harm's way to help the military operate these systems. We have to work on the network management in such a way that it can be configured and operated from the U.S. or made straight-forward enough for a young trained soldier on-site.
ExecutiveBiz: What will your company's focus be in its efforts as it looks to grow in the future?
Rick Lober: We're going to continue to put new satellites in space to meet both our commercial consumer and government demands. We're going to do that in the most efficient way possible using ground infrastructure and terminals that we design using a system level approach. We will continue to employ and advance the best techniques in network management.
We see a growing need for communications-on-the-move, whether it is airborne, vehicular, or shipboard based. We're looking at that area very closely to determine how we can do that using smaller antenna sizes. We have communications-on-the-move now, but many of the antennas, particularly on vehicles, are fairly large and expensive. We're looking at how to reduce the cost and size of those antennas. We're also looking at areas that have been tough problems in the past, satellite communications on helicopters, for example.