Execs: Military Failing to Take Advantage of Commercial Space Revolution

By Stew Magnuson
A satellite communication antenna at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico.

Air Force

Whether it’s high-throughput communications spacecraft, flat electronically steerable antennas or the new wave of low-Earth orbiting small satellites, the military is failing to leverage the billions of dollars the private sector is investing in new technologies, industry executives said March 14.

“There is no mission that takes place in the United States military that isn’t enabled by communication. It is the ultimate force multiplier,” noted Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, senior vice president of government policy and strategy at Inmarsat.

It has been nine years since the Air Force canceled the T-Sat, or Transformational-Satellite program, which was envisioned as a fleet of high-throughput communications spacecraft for the military. The service has not put forth a vision for a new architecture since then, she said at the Satellite 2018 conference in Washington, D.C.

“We have had nearly a generation of ad hoc hybrid partnerships … between the commercial satellite communication industry and the U.S. military in particular,” she said

Since military satellites cannot keep up with the demand for bandwidth, the Defense Department buys capacity from commercial providers, spending some $10 billion over the past 10 years, mostly from overseas contingency operations funds. Every year, industry executives at the annual conference hold a panel to highlight how inefficient this is for taxpayers, but nothing ever changes. They want the government to include them as a partner and a permanent part of its infrastructure so they can know where to invest their money.

The Air Force meanwhile is conducting two analysis of alternatives studies for its wideband communications needs and protected tactical communications needs. The wideband study is expected to be completed in May.

Don Brown, general manager for government services at Telesat Canada, which is building a low-Earth orbiting network of communications satellites, said the situation is different this year. “There is a chance to pivot, to change the architecture. It’s happening right now. And it’s happening at the same time as there is what they call new space. Companies like mine are investing in radically different technologies,” he said.

“The military can leverage the billions of dollars of investment that the commercial guys are making right now,” he added.

David Myers, president of the communications sector at Peraton, agreed that this was a turning point. “At no point in the last 20 years have we seen so many simultaneous new technologies coming to prime time at the same time.” Those include high-throughput satellites with beam-forming networks, more efficient modems, connectivity at the North and South Poles, better links to mobile users and the new generation of flat electronically steerable antennas that are poised to replace dishes.

“The challenge that government has is that the procurement methodologies that are in place today create a big gap — from the time that those technologies become available and the time you can get them on mission and turn them into a competitive advantage against our adversaries,” he said.

Executives on the panel urged the military to come to them with problems to solve, and leave the solution open-ended, rather than issuing requests for proposals with a list of prescribed requirements.

“We industry need to be lobbying the procurement boards and encouraging them to think differently,” Myers said.

Ken Peterman, senior vice president of government systems for ViaSat, said, “Tell us what your problem is. ... Unleash us to go solve it.”

Skot Butler, president of Intelsat General Corp., said in an interview after the panel that industry in general would like government to move faster integrating commercial satcom as a service, rather than feeling that they have to own and control everything. “I think they are getting there. It is just taking longer than industry wants.”

Norman Yarborough, operations research analyst in the office of the deputy assistant secretary of defense for C3, cyber and business systems, cautioned not to expect too much from the upcoming analysis of alternatives.

“We are not building to one seminal decision. I don’t think there is one seminal decision in our budget cycle,” said Yarborough, who also co-chairs the wideband AoA committee. The ends of the spectrum are a purely government-operated wideband communication architecture to one that is wholly operated by the private sector. “It’s all still in play,” he said.

“We are on a journey … with commercial industry. We look to commercial industry to be our mission partner, to provide the goods and services that we need to fill our national security needs. We look to innovation for the future to look how to better meet those needs,” he said.

There are risks for each proposal and the committee is seeking to look at where these pitfalls might be, he said.

The ultimate yardsticks are what senior Pentagon leaders have said: lethality and survivability. How can these communications systems serve warfighters in these two criteria? he asked.

Moe Abutaleb, president and CEO of Utilisat, said, “We have to make it easier for the government to know what we have to offer.” For example, while commercial providers of satellite communications have not in the past needed to worry about survivability, the new wave of technologies can provide more resilient communications, he said.

“Commercial is already investing in multi-band and multi-capability technology that can … provide a resilient infrastructure needed at the satellite level, with satellite redundancy, infrastructure redundancy and terminal redundancy,” Abutaleb said. Industry is willing to invest in capabilities the military requires, it just needs to see the procurement “avenues” to take, he added.

Yarborough said: “We as the government have to learn what it is we want to ask for. If we don’t learn that, and we don’t put in some appetite control relative to performance versus cost, we are going to ask for everything.”

He is no fan of how long it takes the government to do development, but everyone has to go through normal budget channels and put these capabilities against others that won’t get funded if it pursues a certain path. “You have to break something to get something. And it is a zero-sum game.”

Topics: Acquisition, Industrial Base, Procurement, Technology Tomorrow

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