2022 was a groundbreaking year for the COMSATCOM industry. From the deployment of critical satellite communications technologies during the Russian-Ukraine conflict in Eastern Europe, to the launch of revolutionary, cutting-edge satellite constellations, the powerful capabilities and solutions that commercial industry can provide to the federal government and the military were on full display for the entire world to see.
But successes are usually accompanied by setbacks and challenges. Even after witnessing these incredible use-case wins for COMSATCOM integration and adoption, the federal government has still been slow and hesitant to fully implement and deploy these satellite technologies that can support the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) mission of providing its military with a resilient space architecture.
Though officials frequently point to this space architecture as a top priority for the department, the government acquisition process of commercial space assets – which could truly propel the U.S. ahead of its foreign adversaries and near-peer competitors – was still sluggish and arduous in 2022.
To learn more about the trends, progress, and challenges the commercial satellite industry faced within the federal acquisition space in 2022, and to get an outlook on how COMSATCOM can support the federal government and the DoD’s mission requirements in 2023, the Government Satellite Report was able to catch up with SES Space & Defense’s Senior Vice President of Strategic Development, Jay Icard.
Government Satellite Report (GSR): Over the past year, what overarching trends is the commercial satellite industry seeing and experiencing as it pertains to government acquisition? What successes has the industry experienced? What new challenges have come up?
Jay Icard: We’ve seen the government shift away from the lowest price technically acceptable procurements to using best value, which is good! The number of networks has remained flat, meaning the commercial industry repeatedly competes for the same contracts.
Having said that, the U. S. Space Force awarded some significant COMSATCOM contracts last year, such as the CSSC II contract for the U.S. Navy, which is over $900M ceiling – not a small effort. They also released some new solicitations, such as the Global X-band Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA), which should prove to be an enabling contract for MILSATCOM-COMSATCOM integration in the near future.
One concerning challenge that has been popping up these last few years pertains to the current talent pool. If you look at the needs for talent on the government acquisition side, they need personnel to develop the requirements with their customers. They need personnel to evaluate the proposals, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find experienced personnel that wants to work on COMSATCOM acquisitions.
“Along with assuming full acquisition and procurement authorities for COMSATCOM, Space Command should work with Space Force to create Program Objective Memorandum (POM) budgets for select procurements of COMSATCOM.” – Jay Icard
It’s not common for people to go to college and major in COMSATCOM engineering. The government and industry compete from the same resource talent pool. Our industry is not something you learn in a couple of months.
The 2016 “Analysis of Alternatives” study, mandated by Congress, required the Department to look at how military and commercial systems could collectively provide a resilient enterprise architecture. The study found that leveraging both military and commercial systems into an integrated hybrid architecture would save taxpayer dollars. That said, we need government professionals that understand the SATCOM acquisition business.
U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command are working to integrate COMSATCOM, and they choose from that same talent pool, because there’s still a finite number of professionals with the required skillsets. It’s an industry-wide dilemma. I’ve had a number of discussions with Space Force, Space Command, and industry leaders about this topic.
GSR: What are the possible solutions for those skill gaps in the workforce?
Jay Icard: We’ve spoken with Space Force about immersion. For example, in the past, there have been immersion programs where civilian or military personnel would spend time at a vendor’s facility within an operations or engineering team to learn about how the vendor works and operates.
I participate in the U.S. Space Command’s Commercial Integration Cell (CIC), a group of ten industry partners that work with the command to improve the operational effectiveness of space operations. Within the CIC, we have explored several ideas about bridging that skills gap. Immersion of personnel is one of the ideas that are out there. We know it is an effective method, but it requires a deliberate plan that makes sense for all parties to invest the resources to make it successful.
GSR: Has the government and military made any headway with tearing down the bureaucratic challenges that hinder commercial satellite acquisitions? Has there been any progress or new challenges that have come up? How can government and industry work together to make the process faster while meeting military requirements?
Jay Icard: I believe the government is working on it. They have stabilized their organization and where the COMSATCOM purchasing organization is going to sit within Space Systems Command.
Along with assuming full acquisition and procurement authorities for COMSATCOM, Space Command should work with Space Force to create Program Objective Memorandum (POM) budgets for select procurements of COMSATCOM. For example, the government should consider the POM budget for ground infrastructure and network configuration projects to use existing commercial space assets and place into service MILSATCOM-COMSATCOM roaming configurations discussed in the Space Force Vision for SATCOM. But in general, Space Command and Space Force should see where the POM process can be used to ensure a stable and methodical approach to accelerating the availability of COMSATCOM solutions for military requirements.
“First, we must address where we anticipate conflict and where there may be surge needs. That’s first and foremost.” – Jay Icard
We’re not talking about billions and billions of dollars. Small investments could create a lot of capability with COMSATCOM integration in a short amount of time. But first, the organization needs to be set, and the roles and responsibilities tightened up, and I think they have that now.
GSR: Has establishing the U.S. Space Force and having one centralized service for space simplified the commercial satellite acquisition process?
Jay Icard: I believe it will, and I think the measures of success are straightforward. When presented with a mission need from a service or COCOM: 1) Have we reduced the time to acquire a COMSATCOM service? 2) Have we reduced the time to activate a COMSATCOM service? Those are the fundamental measures of success.
So if I have a need for a certain amount of throughput or network availability in a specific area – How long did it take me to acquire? How long did it take you to activate? That’s where the rubber meets the road.
GSR: What are the top SATCOM needs and requirements that the military and government are looking to fulfill in 2023?
Jay Icard: First, we must address where we anticipate conflict and where there may be surge needs. That’s first and foremost. Are we ready to surge? Do we have the capacity in place to fulfill a surge requirement? In any other networking discipline, it’s busy hour traffic management. Are we ready for the busy hour traffic?
Second, do we have plans to fulfill the future capacity needs? As our capacity consumption grows over the next five years, do we have enough MILSATCOM and COMSATCOM to fulfill that need? Where are the gaps? What are the plans to fill those gaps?
And it could be that we have the space assets to fill the gaps. But do we have the ground assets configured to utilize the space assets that are available to us? Do we have the contracting mechanisms to access the space and ground assets in a timely manner?
“Are we using our assets and skills and implementing those capabilities now and in a short timeline with small amounts of money? Or are we studying to do it five years from now?” – Jay Icard
GSR: On December 23, 2022, President Biden signed the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). In the 2023 NDAA, there is a portion that directs the DoD to lay out a strategy and requirements for the protection of DoD satellites. How can the satellite industry assist in realizing these strategies and requirements for a more resilient and defendable national security space architecture, as the law states?
Jay Icard: Accelerate the employment of COMSATCOM integration into military missions, making the enemy’s targeting calculus more complicated. It’s a low-cost and near-term solution to protect MILSATCOM and COMSATCOM assets.
Suppose an enemy focuses their resources into a space asset and successfully disables it. In that case, they will only affect a small percent of the traffic if effective COMSATCOM integration has been employed. To me, that’s been the priority for years now, and that’s the purpose of COMSATCOM integration.
I think the other “tests” we ask in an effort to accelerate COMSATCOM integration include: Are we utilizing the contracts that we have? Are we using our assets and skills and implementing those capabilities now and in a short timeline with small amounts of money? Or are we studying to do it five years from now? Are we studying a problem that we could solve with small and timely investment that could have real mission effects in the near term? I think that is a test that all of us in the industry and in the policymaking side need to ask ourselves.