Surprise addition of military satellites to DoD budget irks commercial industry

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ViaSat President Ken Peterman: 'This is sort of like the government deciding to buy more BlackBerries in 2020 or 2021 instead of taking advantage of smartphone technology.'

WASHINGTON — Commercial satellite operators were blindsided last week when they discovered a $600 million line in the $1.3 trillion omnibus budget for fiscal year 2018 to fund two new wideband communications military satellites.

This action directed by Congress — as the Pentagon did not request the satellites — is worrisome to commercial companies that have spent years trying to persuade the military to spend less money on building custom satellites and more on broadband services from the private sector. Executives argue that commercial systems offer more capacity and cybersecurity at less cost than government-owned satellites.

“We see increasing momentum in DoD exploiting commercial,” said Ken Peterman, president of government systems at ViaSat, a satellite broadband services provider based in Carlsbad, California.

It’s still not clear whether the new funding for government satellites will slow down that momentum. Since the omnibus budget release, “there has been an outcry on social media and online forum,” Peterman told SpaceNews. “This is an almost shameful display of putting a political agenda ahead of the national agenda and ahead of our warfighters.”

The additional money would fund the 11th and 12th satellite of the Wideband Global SATCOM constellation, manufactured by Boeing.

Peterman called it a waste of taxpayer resources and a “political earmark that was driven into the budget and blindsided DoD in a significant way.”

While WGS is an important capability for the military, it is technology that has been surpassed by the private sector, said Peterman. “The tragedy, I think, is that by the time WGS 11 and 12 are fielded, there will be terabits worth of private sector satcom available,” far more than the military says it needs. This would give DoD a chance to get more services for less money, he said.

The ViaSat 2 satellite, for instance, provides 260 gigabits per second broadband. The company currently provides in-flight broadband to more than 400 military aircraft. The next constellation of three ViaSat 3 satellites planned for 2020 will have more than 1,000 gigabits per second of capacity, said Peterman. “And we’re now buying two WGS satellites that have single-digits of gigabits per second?”

This move is “sort of like the government deciding to buy more BlackBerries in 2020 or 2021 instead of taking advantage of smartphone technology,” said Peterman. “These are warfighters we’re giving this technology to, and we’re putting them in harm’s way. To give them 10-to-15 year-old technology when we could be giving them something that is three to five generations more advanced, it’s just wrong.”

Peterman said the industry would like to see DoD conduct head-to-head studies measuring the performance of private sector networks in combat-like conditions and keep a scorecard. “It’s imperative that DoD run a series or experiments,” he said. “They need to measure the performance of commercial systems in the presence of jamming, of cyber threats, of kinetic threats to the ground infrastructure.”

In the omnibus budget bill, lawmakers justified the decision to add two WGS satellites as a necessary hedge as the Air Force transitions from legacy to future systems. As with many budget decisions, someone’s loss is always someone else’s gain.

Bloomberg Government this week declared Boeing a big “winner” of the omnibus appropriation, whereas the budget was a “setback” for suppliers of global communications networks such as Iridium.

BGOV estimated that Boeing has received nearly $4 billion in orders for the program since it began in 1999. Several foreign countries have bought into the system in exchange for access to services. It noted that Boeing spent $4.2 million lobbying in the last quarter of 2017.

Another company that benefits from the WGS add-on is Kratos Technology and Training Solutions, BGOV pointed out. Kratos has contracts worth about $313 million for WGS for training and command and control.