How to Make Defense Department a Better Satellite Communications Customer

By Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch

Photo: Inmarsat

It was only a year ago, at the 2018 National Space Symposium, that Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command and the Joint Force Space Component, spoke about how we are building profound, positive momentum in what could emerge as one of the most significant periods of change in the history of military and satellite communications.


“I am convinced that when historians look back at 2017 and 2018, they will look back on this as one of the most critical times in our national security space history. It will be seen, in my opinion, as a strategic inflection point for national security space and a bold shift towards warfighting and space superiority,” he said during his keynote address.

In reflecting upon recent events, it is difficult to dispute these words. First and foremost, the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act moved responsibility for procurement of commercial satellite communications for the military from the Defense Information Systems Agency to Air Force Space Command. In addition, the White House ordered the Pentagon to stand up a U.S. Space Command as a separate combatant command for carrying out joint space warfighting operations across all branches of the military.

These steps represent far more than a bureaucratic reshuffling of roles: these policies and strategies signify the U.S. government’s recognition of the criticality of space resilience and the importance of consistent, consolidated and strategic leadership in space. They serve as a legislative response to the urgent need for military users to have ready access to resilient, robust and secure communications across the full spectrum of engagement through the support of commercial satellites. The NDAA provides a framework for, and marks the first steps toward, crucial reorganization and consolidation of space capabilities with a tangible opportunity for commercial satellite systems to become an integral part of the architecture.

However, even with the advanced maturity and ubiquity of telecommunications provided by the commercial satellite industry, there remains a divide between historical military acquisition and use of commercial systems versus how the industry delivers and its users buy services. Most commercial users, whether enterprise or consumer, view satellite communications as a critical capability to support their business or mission need.

Yet in the national security enterprise, technology is not the impediment — processes and cultural traditions are. For many years, the Defense Department has primarily paid for commercial satellite services through overseas contingency operations funding — regardless of industry’s generation-long successful track record of supporting mission-critical operations such as airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, VIP special airlift missions, blue force tracking and emergency response/public safety.

We are seeing the first signs of breaking the process stranglehold through the House Appropriations defense subcommittee’s approval of $49.5 million in funding for the fiscal year 2019 Air Force budget to create a new “program of record for commercial satellite communications” within the Air Force. It represents a promising launch point for the more strategic acquisition of commercial satellite communications — laying the groundwork for an interoperable yet heterogeneous network.

The program is intended to pursue a “wideband and narrowband communications architecture and acquisition strategy” that includes both government and commercial space systems. The subcommittee and defense officials have indicated that they are seeking a better long-term plan to buy the services via a more seamless, integrated network structure, and that meaningful changes in procurement are required to make this happen. Progress is being made at Air Force Space Command on the development of a Satellite Communications Enterprise Vision in part to respond to these congressional imperatives.

To further advance successfully in this direction, defense and space command leaders must include procurement as well as operations and maintenance funding within the program objective memorandum and the future years defense program to intentionally and strategically acquire commercial communications satellite services as part of the overall architecture, rather than as an afterthought.

Furthermore, government procurement should take advantage of modern business models that allow acquisition of capability as a service with established and predictable service level agreements that industry offers today. This is in contrast to the historical, broadcast lease model in which the leases are typically comprised of spectrum or MHz. This dated, inefficient and costly acquisition method remains in play today mainly due to a prevailing mindset that says “this must be the way we do things because it has always been the way,” i.e. status quo for the sake of status quo.

“This is one of the most critical times in our national security space history — it will be seen as a strategic inflection point,” said Raymond, adding that the “bold steps we have taken enable us to compete, deter and win today and into the future.” Thus, we arrive at a question — or dilemma — which grows increasingly relevant during this time of strategic inflection: what is needed to make the Defense Department a better customer? To respond, we suggest a few steps.

One, eliminate the one-size-fits-all approach to satellite communication acquisition. As indicated, despite all of the technological and service delivery progress that the commercial sector has made, there is still resistance to the acceptance of these advancements in favor of clinging to status quo acquisition models.

This prohibits users from leveraging the full range of solutions, inclusive of managed services with predicable performance service level agreements, that will enable them to do their jobs. Military users should have access to nothing less than a “fully stocked toolkit” — with a finite amount of legacy, purpose-built platforms for specific unique needs, as well as modern, commercially provided options to readily obtain mission-critical mobile and highly available capabilities. Without such a complete toolkit, a fully integrated architecture with heterogenous networks and flexible terminals, ongoing innovation and operational resilience in contested environments will remain out of reach.

Next, create a fully integrated architecture with a “commercial first” approach. In federal circles, there are frequent “free versus fee” conversations about military satellite communications and the commercial side, respectively, with impressions conveyed that military satellites arrive at no cost and, therefore, should be considered as the primary, if not sole, option. This is simply not accurate. Consistent with Section 2377 of Title 10, United States Code, we should be talking about “commercial first” strategies, in which new and enhanced capabilities are made available immediately and affordably.

Since 2009, when the Pentagon canceled the U.S. Air Force’s Transformational Satellite Communications System program, industry has invested heavily into improving mobility, flexibility, redundancy, throughput, resiliency and protection. And we continue to perpetually innovate and insert technology upgrades — valuable research and development that arrives without upfront cost to customers.

Clearly, satellite communications encompasses an entire universe of robust innovation, beyond merely the satellites themselves. At what could be a turning point for systems procurement, the Defense Department will benefit tremendously when it takes advantage now by committing to a fully integrated commercial foundation in the enterprise which leverages the best that industry has to offer.

The final step is to embrace satellite communications as a service. This has set the standard as a satellite acquisition model for the modern age, enabling servicemen and women anytime, anywhere ready access to robust and resilient capabilities at time and place of their choice. Designed for global mobility, it provides a critical end-to-end communication infrastructure that is owned and managed by trusted commercial operators and includes the space and ground segment elements as well as type approved terminals that deliver seamless global connectivity.

As indicated, industry continues to invest ahead of needs with technology advancements, capabilities and security features. Satcom-as-a-service users simply connect and realize the enhanced operational benefits, with no R&D budget burden on their part. This brings the desired flexibility, information assurance and cost-effectiveness that allow government users to augment their military systems when needed.

Leveraging managed services faces cultural and procedural barriers in the traditional acquisition world. Across the Defense Department and the broader national security enterprise, services acquired “as a service” models are widely employed for a vast range of mission-critical telecommunication and information technology capabilities. The fact that communications satellites are still viewed differently is a cultural legacy from the era when there was not a robust and resilient — and competitively affordable — commercial industry. When it is viewed as a network, or even a network of networks that enable mission success, the processes and methodologies for acquiring these services can evolve accordingly.

A year ago, we heard Raymond’s words and eagerly awaited the much needed change that would result and, fortunately, we have seen a number of key pieces come into place. But a lasting transition worthy of “strategic inflection point” proportions must not only address roles and technologies, but also address antiquated, culturally embedded mindsets, processes and practices.

By making available the best solutions and innovation from industry with “commercial first” firmly in mind while designating satellite communications as a service as a relevant acquisition model for the military community, the department will indeed emerge as a better customer — and, most importantly, the modern military mission will benefit tremendously.

Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch is senior vice president of government strategy and policy at Inmarsat Government.

Topics: Defense Department, Viewpoint, Space

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