Space Force to centralize commercial satellite procurement

The U.S. Space Force is overhauling the way it procures commercial satellite communications services, replacing the current fragmented system with an aggregated model that consolidates both provider contracts and military customer requirements.

Expected to be internally available this summer, the strategy aligns with the Space Force’s recently released vision for satellite communications (SATCOM), said Clare Grason, chief of the Commercial SATCOM Office at the Space Force. That vision paper, released in February, calls for a robust and integrated architecture encompassing both military and commercial assets.

Speaking at the Satellite ’20 conference organized by Access Intelligence, Grason said the strategy will consolidate existing contracts with industry providers and establish service level agreements with the SATCOM Office’s Department of Defense (DoD) customers.  “We believe that will enable us to have more flexibility in our commercial SATCOM procurements and have much greater readiness,” she said.

The strategy will give commanders a holistic view of available SATCOM capabilities and the ability to shift resources as requirements dynamically change, without having to negotiate new contracts, Grason said. “We would just have to modify the [service level agreements] we have with our customers, which is much easier than having to go back out to industry and do that in the form of a new contract or contract modification,” she said.

Formerly a part of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), the Commercial SATCOM office is responsible for procuring commercial satellite connectivity for DoD customers. Currently the procurement process is highly fragmented, with about 100 different contracts currently in place and 30 deals being negotiated at any given time, Grason said.

Nonetheless, the Commercial SATCOM Office has a clear understanding of demand across its customer base, Grason said.

“So in essence, we want to aggregate our collective buying power and do a central procurement,” she said. “And in turn, distribute that capability that we’re centrally buying the form of service level agreements with our customers.”

Some important details of the consolidation strategy are still being worked out, Grason said. These include the formulas for reapportioning both the contracts and the requirements, she said.

The forthcoming strategy is the latest development in what many experts say is the long overdue change in the DoD’s approach to commercial SATCOM procurement. It follows the transfer of the Commercial SATCOM Office from DISA to what is now the Space Force, which owns and operates satellites dedicated to military and other customers. The transfer was designed to give planners a holistic view of the DoD’s satellite communications requirements.

Grason said there will always be a need for government-owned capabilities, but that commercial systems have a critical role to play. “Customers are choosing commercial SATCOM for the superiority and efficiency it often brings to the fight,” she said.

The nascent strategy reflects a broader embrace among the Pentagon leadership of commercial capabilities.

In a keynote address at the conference, Air Force Lt. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of the Space Force, said commercial sector has become a driver of innovation in several technology areas. “Our job is to try to keep pace and leverage to the best we can all of that innovation that’s going on in the commercial sector,” he said.

The commercial satellite communications (COMSATCOM) sector, in particular, has been a hotbed of innovation in recent years, as companies take advantage of technological advances and different orbits to deploy capabilities the government would otherwise not have available.

“We’re no longer viewed as an augmentation to government capabilities but rather as an integral part of the architecture,” said Pete Hoene, President and Chief Executive Officer of SES Space and Defense, the government services arm of satellite operator SES.  “The result will be an integrated enterprise architecture that provides increased capabilities to the warfighter improved levels of resiliency and greater cost efficiencies.”

SES operates satellites in geostationary and Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), offering a diverse blend of capabilities to government and commercial customers. The multi-orbit arrangement allows the government to tap into additional connectivity solutions beyond WGS and an additional orbit fora disaggregated and resilient COMSATCOM architecture.

During a separate panel discussion at the conference, John Klein, a professor at the George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and an advisor to the U.S. government agencies on space policy and strategy, said commercial space capabilities play a key role in deterrence by making the overall architecture more resilient. Having a robust commercial capability can help convince potential adversaries of the futility of attacking space systems as a means of gaining military advantage, he said.

Mir H. Sadat, director of critical enablers at the White House National Space Council, said there is no doubt that relationships with the commercial space sector make an enormous contribution to overall national security. “It creates a huge, diverse and exponentially larger robust system for us” that eliminates the ability of adversaries to take out a critical U.S. capability, he said.

Feature image courtesy of Tech. Sgt. David Salanitri, United States Space Force.

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