The turning tide of government and commercial satellite industry relations – a Q&A with Allan Ballenger

The history and relationship between the government and commercial satellite communications (COMSATCOM) providers is long, storied and interesting. The government was originally the innovator in space – turning dreams into reality by launching men and satellites into orbit. But much has changed from the 1960s – when the commercial satellite industry got its start – to today.

Today, commercial industry is the innovator in space – building and launching new and advanced satellites with exciting new technologies and even launching them into new orbits. But even as the COMSATCOM industry has evolved and matured, the way the government interacted with it and purchased services from it stayed the same.

The government and United States military has long filled gaps in satellite requirements and availability with lowest priced, technically acceptable (LPTA) COMSATCOM services and capacity that they’ve purchased on the spot market. That acquisition method remains in place – which many satellite industry experts would point out is at the detriment of the government.

However, steps are being taken that could elicit some significant change in the relationship between COMSATCOM providers and the Department of Defense (DoD). To get some additional historical perspective on the relationship between the DoD and the COMSATCOM industry, and to learn more about the steps being taken to revolutionize the ways these entities interact, we sat down with Allan Ballenger, a retired Air Force colonel and the current Corporate Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at SES Space and Defense.

Here is what Allan had to say:

Government Satellite Report (GSR): Can you tell us a little bit about the traditional method of purchasing SATCOM capacity on the spot market? Why is that bad for the military?

Allan Ballenger: One reason that buying on the spot market is not a good idea for the US government is that it may not be there at the time and place of the government’s choosing. The commercial market is very dynamic, and if the government needs a particular type of capacity – frequency or orbital slot – it may not be available when they need it.

Instead, by working proactively with industry to help determine a more enterprise architecture approach, the government could sit down in advance and say, “here’s the type of capacity that we need and here’s how we would consider commercial as part of our overall architecture.”

We believe that this is a smarter approach for USG, and that approach seems to be gaining traction in the Air Force Space Command.

GSR: We’ve heard that there are also problems with the kinds of funds that they can buy satellite capacity with. Is that accurate?

Allan Ballenger: That’s accurate on several fronts. To the government’s credit, especially the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, it pursued various pathfinders, prototypes and pilot programs to explore different aspects of commercial satellite communications.

One of the areas where they ran into roadblocks was in how to structure a long-term commitment with industry partners when Congress allocates money for one or two years at a time. That’s one of the areas that has caused some concern – structuring a more commercial-like business deal but still being confined to the color and length of money restrictions that the US government has.

GSR: You talked about an alternative – having a better, more collaborative relationship and creating a more integrated satellite architecture. What does that relationship look like?

Allan Ballenger: The relationship is more like a partner relationship rather than a vendor relationship.  To me, a vendor relationship is like buying a new car. You may have a sense of what is important to you, but you don’t really care who you buy it from. You just want the best deal on that particular purchase. In other cases, when you make a purchase decision, you may care more about the relationship and the level of trust and confidence you have in that relationship – such as when you’re picking a doctor or having a medical procedure.

What we think would be good is to develop a sense of partnership with the US government and industry providers, where the government recognizes the contributions of commercial satellites to their overall communications architecture. I believe that that change has been taking place over recent years, which is a good thing, but there are still those elements that view the world through a narrower lens.

If you’re buying a pure commodity like tires or paper clips, you can and should purchase an LPTA solution. We believe that it’s not in the best interest of the government when it comes to complex technical solutions. That’s not to say that LPTA is always bad; we’re just saying that it’s been misapplied when it comes to commercial satellite communications.

Congress has recognized that in the past few years. We’ve seen recent solicitations steering the departments away from LPTA for complex technical solutions. We believe that will ultimately result in better pricing and better mission success.

GSR: What steps is the military taking to better integrate COMSATCOM and commercial partners into its integrated satellite architecture as trusted partners and less as a provider of a commodity?

Allan Ballenger: There have been a couple of things that have moved the ball in a positive direction. Congressional legislation in late 2017 – Section 1601 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2018 – shifted the procurement of COMSATCOM from the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) to Air Force Space Command.

When that legislation passed, the core government staff reached out almost immediately – and multiple times – across the industry to start getting input as they transitioned to Air Force Space Command. That ultimately resulted in a strategic working group hosted by Air Force Space Command that brought together leadership elements from Space Command, the U.S. government, and key industry partners. That was a step in the right direction in establishing trust and partnership as Air Force Space Command assumed a leadership role in satellite communications procurement.

Another area that is less recent but also very important is the government’s establishment of a commercial innovation cell within the Combined Space Operations Center (C-SPOC), formerly known as the Joint Space Operations Center.

Within C-SPOC, they’ve had this Commercial Innovation Cell (CIC) for several years that brings together eight commercial companies. [Those companies] all participate in a cooperative research and development agreement. That means that there is no additional cost to the government, but there is a mutual benefit to the government and to the companies, so the government gets the benefit of direct and timely insight about what exactly is going on with commercial satellite constellations, and the companies get insight into how the government is operating and how commercial satellites can be used throughout the Department of Defense.

Through that relationship, we work day-to-day – on a confidential level – on the integration of commercial and government satellites. It gives us insight on how we can shape our future commercial capabilities to fulfill the government’s future needs.

GSR: This movement away from LPTA and the move of acquisition authority from DISA to Space Command and collaboration through C-SPOC all help make industry a more trusted government partner…but is it enough? If not, what else has to be done?

Allan Ballenger: The real challenge is crafting the integrated enterprise architecture and vision that includes both purpose-built government satellites and commercial satellites.

Historically, when planners set up military missions, they might have looked solely to purpose-built satellite communications systems. What we’re trying to help them understand is how commercial satellites are already there and capable of supporting the global architecture for satellite communications. Instead of having the military constellations over here and the commercial constellations over there – and never the twain shall meet – we should treat it as an integrated picture. Commanders at various levels should have options to use both purpose-built and commercial SATCOM.

I believe Air Force Space Command is stepping up to lead that integrated enterprise architecture, and probably later this year, we’ll see a more integrated view of how the government envisions using the best of breed [satellite services] across both purpose-built government systems and commercial systems.

GSR: What will the benefit be to the government if they have this combined pool of military and commercial satellite resources?

Allan Ballenger: For decades, the government drove innovation and investment in space, and commercial and industry was always behind. But within the past decade, that calculus has flipped. Now, commercial players are leading spending and innovation, coming up with new ways of launching and operating satellites in orbit and shrinking the size of satellites.

If the government wants to take advantage of that innovation, it’s in its best interest to leverage industry as a partner so they can take advantage of these new capabilities.

Utilizing commercial satellites also allows the government to more quickly stand up new capability. In classic government programs, the process is fairly lethargic – with a lengthy requirements process followed by a lengthy acquisition process, followed by a lengthy fielding process. It can take years – even a decade – between the inception of an idea and the fielding of an idea.

In today’s environment, the way commercial development is going, it can be a few months to a year or two to field a new idea. The ability to take advantage of commercial innovation quickly is a key advantage for the government. Having that responsive support, government missions – especially critical military missions – can depend on highly available, highly reliable communications. That can be a combination of purpose-built government satellites and commercial satellites. It doesn’t have to be limited to one or the other.

Lastly, there’s cost. As there is a standardization of satellites across the industry, the government will benefit from lower costs in the commercial SATCOM industries.

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