Lessons Learned from Pathfinder One

Pete Hoene, CEO of SES Space and Defense, addresses the audience at the recent C4ISR Assured Communications 2016 Conference.

This article was originally published in SpaceNews.

Was the Commercial Satellite Communications (COMSATCOM) Pathfinder One a success or failure?*

A little over a year ago, this was the question posed to senior U.S. Government leadership at a U.S. Strategic Command hosted event and the answers varied widely. However, since contract award, the initiative has matured and now can be categorized as an overwhelming success.  Pathfinder One demonstrated the feasibility of a new and innovative satellite communications (SATCOM) acquisition approach and is supporting critical Department of Defense (DoD) missions – all at a price and timeline beneficial to the government.  Further, Pathfinder One is a great example of how the government can leverage the COMSATCOM industry to rapidly and affordably provide critical SATCOM capabilities to our warfighters.

Pathfinder One changed the way the DoD purchased COMSATCOM capabilities by procuring transponders on a commercial satellite versus the traditional model of leasing bandwidth on the spot market.  While COMSATCOM is normally leased using Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) or Operations and Maintenance funding, Pathfinder One was executed using procurement dollars.  For the first time, the government purchased COMSATCOM as vital infrastructure instead of a service.

AF QuoteSES Space and Defense was able to engineer a cost-effective, customized Pathfinder One solution that fully satisfied the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) operational requirements and could support evolving requirements as well.   This solution included the utilization of inclined satellite capacity which allowed the government to pay significantly less than traditional station-kept bandwidth.  Since remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) have antennas capable of tracking inclined satellites, AFRICOM can use Pathfinder One capacity to support MQ-1 (Predator), MQ-9 (Reaper), and RQ-4 (Global Hawk) operations. In fact, AFRICOM approved the use of inclined capacity on these platforms and is currently using the available Pathfinder One bandwidth to command and control their critical RQ-4 Global Hawk Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance missions – a significant achievement for operational COMSATCOM integration.

By working closely with the end user, SES Space and Defense was able to flexibly adapt the Pathfinder One solution to meet evolving requirements without any loss in service or availability. In fact, the service is so reliable that the U.S. Government’s Regional SATCOM Support Center Europe recently stated that they are managing the COMSATCOM Pathfinder One bandwidth in exactly the same way, and from the very same office that manages the available wideband military satellite communications bandwidth – another COMSATCOM integration success.

In summary, COMSATCOM is a critical national security enabler and Pathfinder One has helped shape how the U.S. Government can flexibly and affordably acquire these capabilities. Pathfinder One is, in fact, an unequivocal success and has produced ground-breaking lessons-learned.   SES Space and Defense applauds the DoD for their innovative vision and we look forward to leveraging the Pathfinder One lessons learned for future Pathfinder efforts.

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