Last month, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) awarded indefinite delivery indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contracts to 16 different satellite operators and integrators for Proliferated Low Earth Orbit (PLEO) satellite services. These contracts, which were issued on behalf of the United States Space Force, will make LEO satellite services available to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and its disparate commands and services.
There are a number of things about these IDIQ contracts that are newsworthy and downright revolutionary for the DoD. First, this is the first time that a multiple award contract model has been leveraged to deliver PLEO COMSATCOM services to the government or military, a decision that DISA claims will, “…deliver capabilities to the warfighter faster and at [a] lower cost.”
The contracts are valued at $32,000 with a $2,000 minimum guarantee to each contractor. However, the total cumulative value of the contracts is $900 million over a period of five years. The government then has the option to add an additional five-year period of performance. Effectively, this gives the services and commands within the DoD the ability to acquire up to $900 million in LEO COMSATCOM services over a period of, potentially, up to ten years.
The 16 different satellite operators and integrators chosen for these contracts include:
- Capella Federal, Inc.
- BlackSky Geospatial Solutions, Inc.
- SES Space & Defense
- Hughes Network Systems, LLC
- Inmarsat Government, Inc.
- Amazon’s Kuiper Government Services (KGS) LLC
- Intelsat General Communications LLC
- OneWeb Technologies, Inc.
- ARINC, Inc.
- Artel, LLC
- PAR Government
- RiteNet Corp.
- Satcom Direct Government, Inc. (SDG)
- Trace Systems Inc.
- UltiSat, Inc.
But the structure of the contract – as a new approach to acquiring COMSATCOM services – is just one aspect or element that makes it stand apart. The awarding of these contracts for what the military is calling “Proliferated Low Earth Orbit (PLEO) Satellite-Based Services” is illustrative of two major trends that we’re seeing as it pertains to the military in the space domain.
For the better part of a decade, the military has been debating whether to continue investing in its own, exquisite, purpose-built communications satellites or pivot to utilizing those developed and operated by commercial partners. While the allure of fully owning, operating, maintaining, and securing their own satellites delayed this shift, COMSATCOM innovations ultimately made it inevitable.
As Gen. Curtis Michael Scaparrotti (Ret.), former Commander of United States European Command, once told the Government Satellite Report, “Commercial satellite providers are the engines of innovation, providing capabilities today and on the horizon that are quite promising.” It’s this innovation that has pushed commercial satellite operators to expand into new orbits – including Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and LEO – and has led to the development of new capabilities that could effectively integrate with the existing MILSATCOM satellites.
These new PLEO IDIQ contract awards show that the military has truly embraced innovative COMSATCOM solutions and satellite services, making them readily available to the DoD as an essential tool in enabling connectivity and communications at the tactical edge. They’re also evidence that proliferation into new orbits, frequency bands, and waveforms is seen as essential in the new reality that the DoD faces in space.
Embracing multi-orbit satellite
Once seen as a benign environment where nations could operate safely without disruption, space is now universally considered an austere, warfighting domain.
As Gen. Kevin P. Chilton (Ret.) recently explained at a Mitchell Institute Schreiver Spacepower Forum, “…U.S. Space Command now operates in a domain where threats are on the rise. Adversaries like China are increasingly seeking to contest this domain…[and] their capabilities include everything from ground-based direct ascent missiles, to electronic warfare, jamming, and co-orbital rendezvous satellites.”
In this environment, it’s not enough to simply proliferate satellite resources within one orbit. For true assurance and redundancy, today’s military will need satellite communications that are both multi-band and multi-orbit.
As Ben Pigsley, the Senior Vice President of Defense Networks at SES Space & Defense, recently explained, “Today, the military is facing near-peer adversaries that have demonstrated their ability to disrupt, deny, and degrade our communications networks…Both multi-orbit and multi-band network solutions offer an elevated level of resiliency and increase availability to government customers. Higher availability is critical to the command-and-control networks operated by the DoD.”
Aside from the benefits to resiliency and assuredness, the introduction of commercial services at different orbits has the potential to deliver new capabilities to the DoD. LEO and MEO satellite constellations offer lower latency and the ability to deliver fiber-like connectivity to practically anywhere on the planet – making them the perfect solutions for high-bandwidth applications that may not have operated effectively over traditional satellite connectivity from Geostationary Orbit (GEO).
But now that the DoD has a contract vehicle in place to acquire these services from 16 different providers, what should they be looking for?
Integrate not just operate
Not all of the satellite providers and integrators on the list are identical or offer the same services and solutions. In fact, some of the recipients that received PLEO contracts don’t even operate their own LEO satellite constellations.
So, what should the disparate services and commands within the DoD be looking for when looking to purchase PLEO satellite services through this contract? Here are three considerations that they should keep in mind when evaluating PLEO satellite service offerings:
1) A secure, integrated space and terrestrial network
True end-to-end satellite solutions require more than just space assets – they require an integrated terrestrial and space network that is capable of getting data and information to where it’s needed from anywhere on Earth.
Often, to build a true end-to-end solution, an established terrestrial network will need to be integrated with multiple satellite offerings. Also, without a dedicated terrestrial network, data often needs to be moved through insecure methods to its final destination – including through the Internet.
If the DoD is going to benefit from PLEO service anywhere on the globe, they need to be working with a provider that can integrate multiple satellite constellations and its own established terrestrial networks to offer true, secure global connectivity that does not require sensitive military data being directed through the public Internet.
2) EM&C capabilities
For the military to have seamless command and control of its integrated space and terrestrial architecture, it needs enterprise management and control (EM&C). As Frank Backes, Senior Vice President for Federal Space at Kratos explained, “[EM&C] allows military and commercial satellite communications systems to be tied seamlessly into the terrestrial infrastructure.”
Any provider or integrator that the DoD considers needs to offer EM&C capabilities if COMSATCOM, MILSATCOM, and terrestrial networks are going to be integrated and deliver capabilities seamlessly to warfighters on the battlefield. As Backes further explained, “Among the goals of EM&C are giving more satellite link choices, reducing resource allocation times, improving bandwidth efficiency, and providing situational awareness to SATCOM.”
3) Experience building global solutions
Building a global, integrated MILSATCOM, COMSATCOM, and terrestrial network, and providing a managed service is complicated and requires both experience and expertise.
In some instances, terminals or gateways may need to be installed to make a global solution work where needed. In other instances, frequency clearances, approvals, and landing rights may be required for a satellite service to be used in other nations.
It’s important that the DoD works to identify the providers and integrators with deep experience and knowledge in building and operating global networks. This is the only way to ensure that the personnel with the connections and expertise are available to navigate these challenges and get networks operating seamlessly.