Pentagon Studying How Best to Acquire Satellite Communications

By Sandra I. Erwin
Wideband Global SATCOM

Photo: Air Force

Should you lease or buy? A question usually applicable to automobiles essentially describes the dilemma facing the Defense Department as it considers how to fill the U.S. military’s future demands for voice and data communications. 

Officials hope to have answers within the next 12 to 18 months.

“DoD is working diligently to leverage the best ideas both from industry and abroad to affordably and reliably meet wideband communications requirements in anticipation of rapidly evolving challenges,” Air Force Col. George Nagy told reporters March 23. Nagy is a principal adviser on space issues at the office of the deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space. 

Nagy and a team of Air Force and Pentagon officials are overseeing a congressionally mandated study known as “Wideband Communications Services Analysis of Alternatives.” The so-called AOA was officially kicked off Dec. 23.

Congress directed the study in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, and approved a $7.8 million budget for the effort. 

The issue of whether the Pentagon should move away from building its own customized and increasingly expensive satellites and rely more on commercial services has been the subject of contentious discussions for nearly two decades. Although the private sector provides reliable and relatively low-cost services, the Defense Department has been hesitant to become overly dependent on commercial providers. Doubts have increased in recent years as military leaders sound alarms about the vulnerability of satellites to hostile attacks such as electronic jamming and missiles designed to kill spacecraft.

The Pentagon’s primary satellite communications system today is a multinational Air Force-operated wideband global constellation known as WGS, and supplements it with short-term service contracts with commercial providers. For ultra-sensitive, classified communications, the Pentagon uses the Advanced Extremely High Frequency constellation, a system designed to operate even during a nuclear war. The Air Force Space Command operates the government-owned constellations and provides military satcom services to combatant commands around the world. Separately, the Defense Information Systems Agency oversees commercial satcom leases.

Commercial operators have a lot riding on the outcome of the wideband AOA. For years they have called on the Pentagon to change its approach from short-term agreements to long-term deals in order to incentivize private-sector investment and negotiate better prices. 

The AOA presumably will shape future decisions on whether the Pentagon should buy more WGS satellites or increase commercial leases. The study also will look at available non-satellite communications alternatives such as aerial and ground-based networks. Analysts predict that more capacity will be needed over the next 20 years as the military increases its use of big-data systems and requires large pipes to send data around the globe. An information-centric military that also wants to work with allies needs flexible systems like those offered in the commercial industry. Private-sector operators recently have grown concerned that their military business is at risk because their systems are said to be less secure than government-owned networks. 

Norman Yarbrough, a space adviser at the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said cybersecurity is a paramount concern in military wideband communications. He participated in a recently concluded AOA study for “protected satellite communication services.” 

During a joint media roundtable with Nagy, Yarbrough declined to discuss details of the protected satcom study, but noted that the results will influence the wideband AOA. 

Nagy said the intent is to “leverage commercial innovation” in the space sector, and that more likely the future approach will be to have a mix of military-unique and commercial systems, which he described as a “flexible, affordable, resilient architecture that balances user demands and operates in contested environments.”

Ensuring access to wideband communications is essential, he said, as a shortage of bandwidth “would challenge DoD’s ability to operate as a joint force and project U.S. national interests abroad.” Adversaries understand this, he said, “and have been developing a wide range of capabilities to deny the United States the benefits that space capabilities provide.”

Government officials over the past 18 months have met with the chief executives of major space companies to discuss the AOA. “Participants at meetings made a very compelling case for the delivery of commercial services,” said Nagy. The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center has launched a commercial satcom pilot program to gain a deeper understanding of what the industry has to offer. 

“We are looking at options beyond the traditional short term leasing arrangements that have predominated since 9/11,” Nagy said. He pointed out that the United States has invited 16 nations to participate in the wideband communications AOA and 12 have accepted: Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom. Australia is expected to join as well. 

The WGS constellation is jointly funded by five other nations and the U.S. Air Force. 

“I think we’ve had a very robust dialogue with industry and international partners to understand their viewpoints on this issue,” said Nagy. “Now we're at an inflection point to a place where we can go ahead and deliberately look at the functional capabilities that the wideband enterprise requires.”

The industry has become impatient over the years with the Pentagon’s indecision on how to move forward with satcom procurements. Yarbrough said a plan is needed sooner rather than later. “Our current capability won’t last forever. We are going to have to replace it with something,” he said. “And we're certainly postured to try to take advantage of commercial capabilities.”

On the issue of cybersecurity, he said, “It's going to be our job to lay out to the decision makers the risks versus rewards of different alternatives, including those alternatives where the vendor might not choose to incorporate protection that may be cheaper versus the ones where they work with us to incorporate some of the protection features that we get today from our military satellite communications.” And he insisted that the government “will look at a range of options.”


Topics: Acquisition, Acquisition Programs, Space

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