Mike Rogers
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.). Credit: U.S. House Agriculture subcommittee on conservation, energy and forestry

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force is expected to include funding in its fiscal year 2017 budget submission for the third in a series of experimental bandwidth procurements that will help inform how the service fulfills its future wideband satellite communications needs, according to several Capitol Hill and industry sources.

Industry officials say by committing money to the third pathfinder experiment, which ultimately could cost as much as $300 million, the Air Force would demonstrate its seriousness about reforming how it buys commercial satellite communications services.

In the first such experiment, the Air Force leased the full Ku-band capacity of an aging satellite covering Africa from SES of Luxembourg for $8 million. When the military’s requirement for commercial satellite capacity shifted back toward the Middle East, the Air Force was able to switch to other capacity, Pentagon officials say.

The second proposed pathfinder entails the up-front purchase of transponder capacity on commercial satellites to support intelligence and surveillance missions. The Air Force did not request money in its fiscal year 2016 budget request for the second pathfinder, but lawmakers have recommended providing up to $26 million.

The third pathfinder calls for the Air Force to cover the cost of building and launching a commercial satellite, either in full or in part, in return for proportional access to the operator’s entire constellation. The experiment is sometimes described as a “reverse WGS-6,” which refers to Australia’s roughly $700 million investment in the Air Force’s sixth Wideband Global Satcom satellite in return for proportional access to capacity across the 10-satellite system.

Capitol Hill sources have said the third pathfinder is expected to cost about $300 million over several years.  But industry sources said the scope of the effort could shrink, thereby lowering its cost.

Commercial satellite operators have long said the Defense Department’s bandwidth buying practices are inefficient and make it difficult for commercial satellite operators to prepare to meet the future needs of their largest customer. Over the last decade or two, commercial satellites have accounted for more than 70 percent of the satellite bandwidth used by the U.S. military.

Traditionally, the Defense Information Systems Agency has procured commercial satellite capacity on behalf of military users. The pathfinders, however, are being led by the Air Force, which is the buyer and operator of the WGS satellites that provide comparable services.

As the service begins to study options for its future satellite communications architecture, commercial satellite operators are pushing to be part of the baseline mix. Officials with these companies view the pathfinder program as a high-profile proving ground for acquisition approaches that have met with skepticism from the Pentagon.

Recently, about  a half dozen officials representing commercial satellite operators met with House members to discuss reform efforts. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, has championed the cause, as has Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.).

“Progress is being made, however it’s too slow,” Rogers said in an Oct. 7 email to SpaceNews. “I want to see the Department moving much faster.  We owe it to the taxpayers and the warfighters to be acquiring these services in a cost-effective manner which meets the national security requirements. It would be inexcusable to do anything less.”

Industry officials say that after encountering roadblocks at the mid levels of the Defense Department acquisition bureaucracy, they are pushing harder on Capitol Hill.

“Congress is the one place that can go back and ask the really hard questions,” said Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General Corp., the government services arm of satellite operator Intelsat of McLean, Virginia.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.