COMSATCOM Pathfinder funds withheld in Senate draft defense bill

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ORLANDO, Fla. – A defense authorization bill that cleared a U.S. Senate panel last week would prohibit the Air Force from spending $30 million this year to experiment with new ways of buying commercial satellite communications bandwidth unless the Pentagon can show the program will yield significant advantages over relying on the current generation of military-owned satellites.

The Senate Armed Services Committee marked up its version of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act on May 12, voting 23-3 to send the bill to the full Senate for a vote. SpaceNews obtained several satcom-related provisions of the bill, which the committee has yet to make public.

The bill, which sets policy and spending guidelines for the entire Defense Department, would withhold $30 million from the Air Force’s COMSATCOM Pathfinder program and a related, lower-profile pilot effort until it convinces Congress the demonstrations will lead to “orders of magnitude improvements” in satellite communications capability.

Commercial satellite providers are pushing the Defense Department to change what they characterize as inefficient bandwidth leasing practices. The Senate Armed Services Committee has been particularly critical of the Defense Department’s efforts, even as the Air Force has slowly begun experimenting under the Pathfinder program with novel acquisition approaches meant to improve that process.

The Air Force’s 2017 budget request seeks $30 million for the third in a series of five Pathfinders. That experiment calls for purchasing a pre-launch commercial Ku-band transponder.

The Air Force is also asking Congress for another $91 million for the fourth and fifth experiments in the series, which would consider a “pooled” bandwidth approach and evaluate high-capacity satellites using a test vehicle. Those experiments would be funded in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

In NDAA report language obtained by SpaceNews, the Senate Armed Services Committee said it was “disappointed that, despite numerous requests” the Air Force had been “non-responsive to requests for information” on how Pathfinder will yield advantages over the Air Force’s current reliance on its Boeing-built Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellites.

Commercial satellite fleet operators maintain they can provide the Air Force with WGS-like services for less than what it would cost the government to build and operate the replacement satellites that will soon be needed.

The House Armed Services Committee, which marked up a competing version of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act in late April, did not fence off any of the Air Force’s COMSATCOM Pathfinder money but asked for some changes to the program and said the Defense Department “should be more rapidly exploring additional opportunities, to include order-of-magnitude improvements, to increase efficiency of the acquisition of commercial SATCOM.”

The Air Force awarded the first Pathfinder contract in June 2014 to SES Government Solutions of McLean, Virginia, to lease the full capacity of an aging satellite covering Africa. The Air Force has not yet awarded the second Pathfinder, which calls for the Air Force to experiment with the prelaunch purchase of a full transponder aboard a commercial satellite.

If the Senate’s draft of the NDAA becomes law, the Pentagon’s Comptroller General would be asked to determine whether the Defense Department understands the costs and benefits of using Ka-band commercial satellite bandwidth.