Air Force ready to offer commercial operators spots for WGS partnership effort, general says

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Air Force Space Command is looking to increase its partnership with industry, even preparing to bring in commercial operators to help run the Wideband Global Satcom constellation, the AFSC vice commander said March 8.

“We have an initiative underway today. It’s focused on Wideband Global Satcom. We are about completed with our development of the [request for proposal] and are ready to field it to industry,” Maj. Gen. David Thompson said during a keynote address at the Satellite 2017 conference here.

“We’re about to go out and seek bids to have a firm come in, put contractors in seats today on the operations floor at Schriever Air Force Base in positions that are are today military and civilian government operators; simply have them replace, and begin to do those operations,” he said. “We should complete that activity over the next year.”

Maj. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command. Credit: USAF
Maj. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command. Credit: USAF

The Air Force is also starting to look at whether it would be feasible — and make operational sense  — to have contractors perform those same duties from an outside facility, perhaps the contractors’ own operations center rather than a military base, Thompson said.

It’s part of the service’s effort to grow partnerships with private companies and leverage the advantages that industry has to offer, the general said.

“When you talk about the benefits of partnership, they’re easy to understand and they’re easily achievable,” Thompson said. “It’s efficiency, it’s effectiveness, it’s mutual benefit for U.S. Air Force, allies, partners, industry partners, commercial organizations, civil organizations.”

But, he added, “the challenges are there. Certainly in terms of law and policy and guidance. We are the United States Air Force and there are some limitations there that you have to understand.”

One of those challenges is sharing sensitive data, especially with other nations.

“Information that we today in space believe is highly sensitive, protected, and nobody in the world except an American citizen should know; very similar information exists today in the special operations world in land, in cyber, that we very readily and easily share that information with our partners and allies,” Thompson said. “So it’s really just a mindset, again, in space of ‘hey, space is different.’ Well yeah, space is different, but all those lessons we learned about coalition warfare in air, land, sea, [and] special operations apply.”

U.S. Strategic Command is currently working on the Combined Space Operations Initiative, he said, an effort to “really get after coalition space operations in warfare just like we would in every other domain.”

The effort is a partnership with the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and Thompson said France and Germany will be joining soon.

Mostly what needs to change is mindset about space operations, the general said, but noted there are some technical challenges, too.

Space, originally developed as a “secluded, sequestered environment,” means many systems weren’t designed to talk with one another.

“We have a lot of information systems that aren’t prepared to share information with our coalition partners,” Thompson said. “It’s about 90-percent mindset, it’s about 10 percent getting the technology lined up.”

Partnerships between the U.S. and other nations, and between the Pentagon and the private sector, are critical to the future of space operations, Thompson said.

“You understand when you have a coalition, willing group who have common objectives, seek common outcomes, very quickly barriers fall away,” he said.