A new path forward for COMSATCOM acquisition – a Q&A with Maj Gen Jay Santee (USAF, Ret.)

The Government Satellite Report team had the opportunity to attend last month’s Air Force Association (AFA) Air, Space and Cyber Conference at the National Harbor just outside of Washington, DC. The Conference saw a multitude of Air Force senior leaders and decision makers – as well as private industry – coming together to discuss the new technologies being implemented by the Air Force, as well as the new challenges and threats being posed to the U.S. military from our adversaries.

One of the panel discussions at this year’s conference was titled, “Breaking Barriers in Space Operations,” and featured two military leaders with a deep understanding for the new challenges facing the Air Force in the space domain – Brig Gen Chance Saltzman, and Maj Gen Jay Santee, USAF (Ret.), who now serves as the Director for Resilient, Affordable Space at the MITRE Corporation.

During this engrossing panel discussion – which delved into a wide number of topics ranging from the increasingly contested space domain to the evolution of commercial launch – Maj Gen (Ret.) Santee teased that a new and more innovative approach to COMSATCOM acquisition had to be explored in the Air Force and the larger Department of Defense (DoD), calling for a combined and integrated SATCOM infrastructure that combined both MILSATCOM and COMSATCOM resources.

We were intrigued by what Maj Gen Santee was saying, so we sat down with him for a more in-depth discussion about this new approach to COMSATCOM acquisition. Here is what he had to say:

Government Satellite Report (GSR): During your panel discussion (at the AFA Conference), you said that there’s an evolution or movement away from space operators and towards space warfighters. What is triggering this evolution? What differentiates a “space operator” from a “space warfighter?”

Maj Gen Santee: A Space Operator employs a space system to deliver effects to soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines engaged in other domains. By contrast, a Space Warfighter employs a space weapon system to deliver effects to warfighters while fighting against a thinking adversary.

Since all national security space systems are subject to attack, they will all need to be designed to enable space warfighters to fight through attacks while collecting images, broadcasting PNT signals, connecting satellite communication users, or assessing missile launches.

To address emerging threats to our space systems, we must fundamentally change the way space operations are performed. The mission, function, and task performed by the warfighter and the weapon system must change in the face of these threats.  For today’s space operators, we have a new set of missions, functions, and tasks to perform to control and exploit the space domain and that entails defeating an adversary who is attempting to deny, degrade, or disrupt friendly space capabilities.

For developers, this means we have a new “engineering” problem to solve.  We must add design features to enable warfighting on our space, ground, spectrum and user equipment segments.  It’s similar to the difference between flying a business jet and a fighter aircraft.  When we design these aircraft, we had different “engineering” problems to solve and the result is two very different flying machines employed in two very different ways.

GSR: We often hear that space is a contested environment now and that we need to protect space resources. What steps can the military take to ensure resiliency in space capabilities?

Maj Gen Santee: Air Force Space Command and the National Reconnaissance Office developed a new warfighting concept.  This includes a new concept of operations, new resilient architectures, and new tactics, techniques, and procedures that are all optimized to delivering effects from a contested space environment. It’s both an operational and force development problem, and it requires a top-down, system-of-systems or enterprise approach.

The Department of Defense has identified the elements of space mission assurance and resilience in space. Designing resilient space architectures entails applying these six elements correctly to outpace and defeat the projected threat.  The elements are:

  1. Protection
  2. Disaggregation
  3. Proliferation
  4. Diversification
  5. Distribution
  6. Deception

In each of the space capability areas, these elements must be correctly applied by AFSPC and the NRO to create enterprise-wide resilience.

GSR: What role can commercial satellite constellations – including LEO and MEO constellations – play in delivering this resiliency?

Maj Gen Santee: Commercial space service providers play a key role in today’s architectures and they will play an equally, if not more valuable role in the future. They will serve new roles in enhancing resilience and must therefore be fully integrated into architectures from the beginning. This contrasts with the way we leverage commercial space services today—as supplementing national security space shortfalls.

I also predict a future where the government will seek closer cooperation and partnership with commercial entities.  The government will want “full service” partners who may fly national security payload on their satellites, fly and operate government satellites, distribute government information across ground networks, and provide the government with “full enterprise services.”

In return, the government should consider bringing commercial operators into military planning and operations to include sharing information about space and cyber threats, provide indemnities against wartime loss, as well as traditional monetary compensation for their services.  This type of partnering is only possible if the government and industry plan and architect for it well ahead of actual need.

GSR: During the panel, you said that there needs to be a shift in how the military conducts COMSATCOM acquisition. What is broken in the current acquisition model and how would you fix it?

Maj Gen Santee: When I stated we need to rethink buying services, I was referring to the thinking outlined above.  The threat requires the government and industry to re-optimize our thinking and relationships to defeat the common threat.

This novel approach to acquiring services requires the government to rethink its relationship with commercial service providers.  It requires both the government and industry to approach the relationship in a less transactional, short-term, case-by-case basis.  Instead, both parties need to approach the relationship from a long-term, enterprise perspective where both parties make long-term plans, decisions, and actions in their mutual interest.

The DoD will likely want to do more than lease bandwidth or buy images. In the future, they may want access to SATCOM providers’ networks, satellites, bandwidth, satellite SWaP (Size, Weight and Power), and more.  This long-term, enterprise approach can allow the government to build resilience into its architectures in that it can bring proliferation, diversification, and distribution to our space enterprise.

Commercial providers want a stable investor who can offset risks to their operations and satellites with assurances of a steady cash flow and indemnification.  This can be a win-win for both parties and will require us to rethink our relationship considering the threat.

GSR: Do you anticipate that the new (Air Force) wideband AoA will take positive steps towards COMSATCOM acquisition change? How do you anticipate the wideband AoA influencing space and satellite policy and procedure moving forward?

Maj Gen Santee: I’m not familiar with the Terms of Reference to the wideband AoA.  I will say past AoAs have shown us that trying to make architecture decisions from a single “mission area” perspective versus an enterprise perspective does not yield satisfactory results.

Any AoA going forward must take an enterprise perspective in addressing the threat. For this to occur, the AoA terms of reference should ask for solutions that optimize resilience in addition to schedule, mission area performance, and cost.  If an AoA only optimizes cost, schedule, and mission area performance, I am skeptical we’ll get a satisfactory outcome.

In the case of wideband SATCOM, if the AoA terms of reference ask for the team to take an enterprise approach and optimize all four parameters to outpace the threat, I’m sure we’ll get results that point to the solutions I’ve discussed above.

Maj Gen Santee is not the first person to speak with the Government Satellite Report about reevaluating the COMSATCOM acquisition process. To listen to an interesting podcast on this topic with Jeff Rowlison, the Vice President of Government Affairs at SES Space and Defense, click HERE.

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