Pentagon Still Relying on Spot Buys for Milsatcom

This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.

More than a decade of war and increasing military demand -- as well as capacity -- for satellite communications still have not driven the Pentagon and commercial industry to craft a consistent and strategic framework for purchasing commercial services.

The Pentagon spends nearly $1 billion annually on commercial satellite communications for such operations as command and control of unmanned air systems (UAS), like the Predator and Reaper fleets, and shuttling their massive full-motion imagery files around the world. Despite the dramatic growth of these types of operations for more than a decade -- beginning just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- the Pentagon is still buying satellite communication services on the spot market, the most expensive and least efficient way to do so.

And the demand is not short-term. Even with four Boeing-made Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellites in orbit and two more planned for launch, the Pentagon does not see demand for commercial satellite communications being satisfied. Each WGS provides 10 times the bandwidth offered by the entire U.S. Air Force legacy Defense Satellite Communication Systems (DSCS) constellation.

WGS is now supporting 94% of the Pentagon's wideband requirements. "The launch and deployment plan for WGS milsatcom services will not keep up with the expected demand and will require use of commercial satcom to meet our needs," says David Madden, incoming executive director of the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.

Demand in Iraq and Afghanistan is and will continue to drop off as the U.S. reduces force presence there. But the White House's push to focus the military on the vast Pacific region and continue with counterterrorism operations in and around Africa heralds a need in these areas. As always, the military is posturing to provide organic communications -- constellations owned and operated by the Pentagon -- in these regions. But they are already forecast to reach capacity soon, so some commercial capacity will be needed to sustain peacetime operations. Even more critical, however, is how the Pentagon can "surge" and have commercial services at the ready in the event of a major operation or war.

Today, commercial services provide about 40% of the Defense Department's communications; that is expected to increase to 68% with the focus on Asia, as the U.S. Navy puts more resources in patrolling and protecting sea lanes of transit and increased activity on anti-drug operations, according to a Jan. 24 Defense Business Board report on making the most of commercial satcom services.

Commercial operators are outspokenly seeking more permanent and regular deals with the Pentagon, which has consistently purchased these services on an annual basis. The Defense Department is considering a variety of options, none of them new, and although this could turn into another unproductive exercise, a growing imperative for Pentagon efficiency may allow it to finally overcome hurdles to achieving more long-term and cost-effective deals.

Such concepts could find their way into the fiscal 2015 budget process, says Rich McKinney, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space. One Air Force official suggests there are also hybrid approaches, such as proposing a less expensive lease option in the long term, as a compromise to Congress, while continuing smaller spot buys on an annual basis as well.

The Defense Business Board's recommendations include: a buy-to-lease option; capital lease (for up to 10 years); service provided by NASA or the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration as an anchor tenant; indefeasible right-of-use agreement; long-term multi-year arrangement; or hosted payloads augmenting a constellation.

There are numerous legislative barriers to such deals, though, and the Pentagon itself is ill-structured to handle them, says the Defense Business Board. Among the barriers are arrangements longer than one year, which obligate a future Congress without its express consent. But the hurdles are not insurmountable, as the Pentagon frequently proposes and uses multi-year deals for services and the purchase of aircraft and vehicles -- most of which provide per-unit savings. The Defense Business Board estimates that a capital lease for up to 10 years could save the Pentagon $100 million annually.

Options that require a chunk of upfront funding with a promise of future cost avoidance are a tough sell in this budget environment, which is focused on simply looking for savings in the near term.

These and other approaches could be better handled if the Pentagon were to appoint a single point of contact for both the commercial industry and Congress. "From an outside view, it appears the current roles and responsibilities are ambiguous," the board finds.

One industry expert notes that U.S. forces in the Pacific have more than adequate fiber communications. But ships, special operators and aircraft operating there also need to be able to access high-speed systems. WGS- 1 and -4 are already serving the Pacific Command; WGS-3 is serving the burgeoning Africa Command.

Some defense officials cite concern about a lack of capacity in the South Pacific should a military engagement erupt there, indicating a potential area for innovation in contracting. By contrast, there is less fiber in Africa, and the vastness of the continent points to a hearty use of satellite communications as the Pentagon continues operations there.

In the meantime, the Pentagon is focusing on the use of its military Ka-band capability with the population of the WGS constellation that handles communications in the military Ka and X bands. The advent of military Ka-band capability is the newest for the department's wideband fleet, and it provides high data rates for users.

More than 4,000 WGS-compatible X- and Ka-band terminals have been fielded, and they are also compatible with commercial Ku-band signals. The Pentagon is also planning to certify another 29 Ka-band terminal systems for use with WGS soon, Madden says. These terminals range from portable, tactical applications to fixed gateways with dishes as large as 12.2 meters (40 ft.). By contrast, about 700 DSCS terminals are in use.

Because WGS had not been fielded as the Air Force rushed Predator and Reaper UAS into service at the beginning of the 2000s, engineers were forced to equip them with commercial Ku-band terminals. Air Force officials hope to shift them over to using Ka-terminals that can operate with WGS, according to Chris Pehrson, director of strategic business development for General Atomics, which manufactures the UAS systems. Air Force officials confirm this and also note a possible plan to enlarge the wings of the UAS and make them more robust in bad weather, though they say this could be cost-prohibitive in the current tight budget environment.

Likewise, the Air Force is testing the use of Ka-band terminals on its fleet of heavy aircraft -- such as transports and aerial refuelers -- this summer, says Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein, director of operations for Air Force Space Command.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is also exploring ways to reshape its protected, secure constellation. Though the first two Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites made by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are up, they will not provide service until early next year. The legacy Milstar system is still enabling all of the nuclear-hardened, secure communications now.

The Pentagon has plans to buy six AEHF satellites, so the next opportunity to introduce a new concept is likely in the fiscal 2016 or 2017 budget plan; the former will be assembled next summer. Air Force officials are looking at the use of a "disaggregated" architecture that splits off some of the tactical, protected missions onto their own satellite. This would allow for the construction of smaller, ostensibly cheaper, satellites capable of providing secure communications on the move without the cost associated with the nuclear-hardened mission for providing communications between the president and bomber and submarine forces in the event of an attack.

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