DoD Official Challenges Satcom Providers to Get Creative

With the U.S. Defense Department formulating plans to recapitalize its space-based telecommunications infrastructure, a senior official challenged commercial satellite companies to collaborate on integrated bandwidth solutions that give the Pentagon a compelling reason to abandon its old habits.

Douglas Loverro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, effectively put the onus for change on an industry that has long complained that the Pentagon relies too heavily on its own satellites and procures commercial bandwidth inefficiently.

“You guys have got to come up with a creative way to put these networks together, to put these systems together to meet our needs,” Loverro said at the MilSatCom USA conference sponsored by the SMi group of London. “Otherwise we will do what we normally do, which is the easiest thing for us to do, which is to follow part of our routine and go buy some satellites.”

Loverro cited what he characterized as a requirements-based proposal submitted jointly by the United States, France, Britain and Italy on an upcoming NATO satellite communications contract as an example of what’s possible via collaboration. NATO is giving that proposal serious consideration, Loverro said.

He cautioned that NATO, which does not own satellites, has its own acquisition rules and that its procurement might not be directly analogous to a U.S. program. “There are many ways to build this arrangement, but the creativity has got to be on how the networks work together.”

Industry officials countered, however, that there are significant government barriers to innovative commercial satellite solutions for the government. Legal reviews within the Pentagon, policy uncertainty and outdated laws continue to pose problems.  Loverro acknowledged these concerns and urged both patience and perseverance on industry’s part.

Another longstanding issue raised by the audience is the lack of a single entity in charge of the U.S. military satellite communications enterprise. Satellites, terminals and commercial bandwidth are all procured by different agencies under programs that often lack the coordination necessary to deliver the best and most cost effective overall solution.

Loverro readily conceded this point. “We need to charge some agency, some entity with providing satcom to the warfighter” without concern for whether the bandwidth is coming from a military-owned, commercial or even allied satellite,” he said.

The Pentagon is preparing to begin a long-awaited an analysis of alternatives for its future wideband communications capability, now served by the military-owned Wideband Global Satcom constellation and a mix of commercial satellite operators. Although an estimated 60 percent of today’s U.S. military traffic is carried via commercial satellites, these operators want to be more fully integrated into the architecture, as opposed to an adjunct to the Pentagon’s own capacity.

For some military users, such as U.S. special operations forces, however, the qualities of commercial capacity make it the choice of first resort.

U.S. Army Col. John McLaughlin, C4 operations chief at U.S. Special Operations Command, said special operations forces rely on commercial over government capacity by a margin of 11 to 1. Commercial services tend to be more flexible, agile and responsive than comparable services from military satellites like WGS, he said.

McLaughlin also complained about the lack of terminals for the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System, whose fifth and final satellite launched in June. The Defense Department needs to “do a better job of getting the pieces of the program together so they’ll be synchronized better,” he said.

Winston Beauchamp, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space and director of the Principal DoD Space Advisor Staff, said the Pentagon is looking to change its approach to procuring satellite communications capabilities, government and commercial, as it seeks to become more resilient against various space threats that have emerged in recent years. Commercial capabilities and improved resiliency will be key factors in the upcoming analysis of alternatives, he said.

“We know we’re not going to have a one-size-fits-all solution,” Beachamp said. “…If you come to me with a plan that says ‘I can get you the best possible deal as long as you give all the work to me,’ that’s probably not going to fly. If we’re looking for resilience, I’d much rather 10 percent of 100 satellites than 100 percent of 10 satellites.”

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