How government and industry can make hosted payloads happen – an interview with Earl White

In early March, the GovSat report editorial team had the opportunity to attend this year’s SATELLITE 2016 Conference in National Harbor, MD. One of the very first panel discussions I attended at this year’s conference focused on the adoption of hosted payloads by the government and military.

The panel was entitled, “Developments in the Adoption of Hosted Payload and Smallsats for Government Use,” and it brought together industry leaders, government decision makers and members of the Hosted Payload Alliance to discuss the benefits that hosted payloads could deliver to government organizations, the challenges hindering hosted payload adoption and things industry and government could do – together – to overcome those challenges.

One of the panel participants was Earl White, a former Air Force Senior Executive and Intelligence Advisor at the United States Space Security and Defense Program. Earl’s contributions to the panel discussion resonated with me, since he spoke clearly and passionately about mutually-beneficial hosted payload programs that withered on the vine, and the reasons why – he believed – they failed. He also asserted that he had a list of steps industry could take to make hosted payload programs more viable, that he could provide offline to those in the audience that were interested.

We followed up with Earl following the conference to get that list from him, and to get his opinion on hosted payload in the military and government agencies. Here is what Earl had to say:

Earl WhiteGovSat Report: In your panel discussion at SATELLITE 2016, you touched briefly on hosted payloads and their potential benefit to government and military organizations. Can you expand on that for our readers? Why should government agencies and military branches be looking at hosted payloads as an alternative? What can they deliver for these organizations?

Mr. White: As a career space intelligence officer I see hosted payloads from a mission assurance perspective.

I’ve been following the development of counter-space threats for many years.  Space is now a warfighting domain, not because of U.S. actions but because of large investments from countries interested in negating the advantages the U.S. has created through our use of space.  As current systems providing essential services to warfighters and policy makers come under increasing risk, hosted payloads offer a way to quickly improve resiliency.

A second big advantage, of course, is the cost savings from leveraging large commercial investments in the bus and primary payloads.

GovSat Report: Why do you feel we don’t see more successful hosted payload programs across the federal government? What keeps the government from embracing hosted payloads to fill more of their satellite and space requirements?

Mr. White: Hosted payload proposals seem to surface when a company has surplus SWAP (size, weight and power) in a future satellite system, and smart people see the opportunity to provide a useful service to the government.  The proposals I’ve seen often have substantial cost advantages over current systems, and yet almost always fail.

There are several reasons.  First, if the government needs a space-enabled service, there is probably an existing program of record to provide it. The program was competed and approved through a lengthy process that considered the available options.  The best way for a hosted payload to be embraced is to participate in that acquisition process, which for the Department of Defense (DoD) means being considered in an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA). Industry, however, operates on a much faster timeline than the government, and decisions on whether to fly a hosted payload often can’t wait on a multi-year government decision process. We just don’t have the decision or the funding processes in place to take advantage of the speed of the industry, and it’s getting even more critical with the emergence of New Space.

Second, the national security community must have confidence that the systems they use are going to be available when needed.  It’s fairly easy to have confidence when buying a commodity like COMSATCOM bandwidth, but it’s a much different calculus with a hosted payload.  Here you have to understand the health of the company—will the bus and primary payload make enough money to continue operating?  What happens if it doesn’t?  You have to have confidence in the cyber protection of a system you don’t control. You also need to know that primary commercial payload operations will not interfere with urgent government use of the secondary. We’ve seen examples of government-industry partnerships that work, but that isn’t yet a mainstream experience.

I think another reason is that national security space organizations like the NRO and Air Force Space Command have been extremely successful in what they do, and it’s a well-known business principle that the more successful a business, the more resistant to change. Why change what works? Unfortunately, the threat environment is changing dramatically and what is successful today is not going to be good enough for tomorrow.  Part of tomorrow’s solution – I’m convinced – is in hosted payloads. And the nation needs to learn how to leverage them effectively.

GovSat Report: What can industry do to help increase the number of successful hosted payloads programs?

Mr. White: I can think of several things. Industry needs a strategic approach that matches an end user’s needs. For instance, industry might match their future capabilities against the list of missions that STRATCOM wants to protect, and focus on a mission where they can add resilience to the current capability. It may be cost advantageous to add resiliency to a current system over the government fielding an entirely new constellation.

Second, a company with Independent Research and Development (IRAD) funds might consider working a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with the DoD or National Lab to develop payloads that meet future government needs. Some of the labs are aware of the future national security space needs and are always eager to get rides into space.

The most important things, however, require the cooperation of the government.  Industry needs a much closer relationship with the acquirers and users of national security space. It is impractical for every company with SWAP to participate in an AoA, yet there needs to be a way for the government to understand and consider hosted payload options.

I’d recommend that industry look to the example of the Commercial Cell in the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC).  This cell was created by an association of competing SATCOM companies to represent their operational capabilities to the JSPoC with a small footprint and without revealing proprietary information.  I think this model might work with AoAs as well.

Finally, I think it’s important for industry to take note when they run into roadblocks to hosted payloads, and work with the government to define changes to regulations or laws.  We are in a dynamic and increasingly dangerous environment. None of us can afford to let regulations or laws stand when they no longer serve our needs.

GovSat Report: What does the government have to change and what does senior leadership have to do to increase the adoption of hosted payloads?

Mr. White: Today’s senior government space leaders understand the need for resilient systems and agile acquisitions and are already acting to make changes in their organizations.

You can see it in the National Geospatial Agency’s Commercial Imagery Strategy published last December.  I’m particularly eager to see what comes out of AFSPC’s Space Enterprise Vision (SEV), which I believe is now in review at the OSD level. I hope and expect that the SEV will direct increasing consideration of hosted payloads, and will provide mechanisms to make that happen. Still, the acquisitions organizations are going to need a great deal of industry help as they make the transition. I also see great promise in OSD’s Silicon Valley initiatives. They don’t yet address the New Space industry, but I’m hoping that the agile processes developed there will translate into much more agile space acquisitions—perhaps fast enough to match commercial decision making timelines.

GovSat Report: Where do you see hosted payloads in the next five to ten years? Do you anticipate that the government will overcome these challenges and utilize them more extensively? If so, where do you see them having the most adoption and impact – for civilian agencies or the military?

Mr. White: I fully expect national security space to increasingly consider hosted payloads as options for resilience and cost savings.  If they successfully build the needed processes – and industry responds with well-thought out, well-planned and well-designed options – we should see a real increase in the number of hosted payloads flying in the next decade.

The large LEO cross-linked constellations now in development would offer amazing opportunities for hosting government payloads, and are particularly attractive when integrated with traditional GEO ComSats.  It’s very easy for me to see opportunities in tactical ISR, missile warning, weather, secure communications and space situational awareness.

There are many that could add a great deal of resiliency to national security space. The key is getting the government to engage early enough with requirements for security and command and control, and to think through all the regulatory and funding hurdles well in advance.

To learn more about hosted payloads, click on the resources below:

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