Caption: U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall Credit: DOD PHOTO BY GLENN FAWCETT

Entrenched habits die hard, especially in big government bureaucracies, and the U.S. Defense Department’s procurement of commercial satellite bandwidth is a classic example. For a decade or more, the Pentagon has resisted changes that could lower its unit cost of commercial bandwidth while helping to ensure the availability of capacity to support future contingencies.

Advocates of change, even those jaded by years of inaction, were encouraged in March when Pentagon acquisition czar Frank Kendall announced he was on the case. Speaking to a gathering of satellite industry executives, Mr. Kendall said his office, along with that of Pentagon Chief Information Officer Teri Takai, would be launching a 90-day commercial satellite bandwidth study focusing on three areas: future demand, current utilization rates and better buying practices.

With the Pentagon engaged at the highest levels on a timetable that conveyed a sense of urgency, industry sensed an inflection point was at hand. But the study took several months to get underway and the Pentagon acknowledges that it will not be completed in 90 days as originally envisioned. Of far greater concern is that the exercise appears to have bogged down on the question of how efficiently the Pentagon utilizes the commercial bandwidth it leases today. 

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with wanting the most utility out of each dollar spent, especially in today’s difficult budgetary environment. But the study appears in danger of becoming an audit rather than a forward-looking examination of measures that would help truly integrate commercial bandwidth into the military’s overall satellite communications architecture.

The Pentagon today relies on commercial assets to carry most of its satellite communications traffic. This reliance will continue, if perhaps to a lesser degree, even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down and the Pentagon fills out its own highly capable Wideband Global Satcom and Mobile User Objective System satellite constellations. 

The Defense Department understands this reality yet remains reluctant to factor it into its long-term planning, preferring instead to procure commercial bandwidth on an ad hoc basis. 

This is a gamble. When war erupted in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there was plenty of commercial bandwidth available to U.S. and allied forces because satellite operators had overinvested in capacity during the late-1990s telecom boom. But there’s no guarantee that this will be the case the next time U.S. forces are called into action. Satellite operators, being in business to make money using assets that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and deploy, are not given to having a lot of idle capacity sitting around — ideally, their satellites are heavily booked by the time they’re launched.  

A recent example of the consequences of planning on the fly is the Pentagon’s use of bandwidth on a satellite with Chinese-government ownership to support activities in Africa. The arrangement, while well within the rules, drew criticism from some U.S. lawmakers wary of depending on China for military capabilities. The Pentagon said it had no alternative, and that’s the point: With better planning, it might have had the option to use capacity from a less-controversial source.

How best to prepare for unknown future military contingencies at a palatable cost should be at the heart of the 90-day study. Admittedly, this is tough stuff: The future is impossible to predict, and government officials are justifiably skittish about committing to buy capacity that might not get used.

But there are ways to hedge against the uncertainty. These include giving the government more flexibility to aggregate demand and share capacity between agencies or even with nongovernment organizations. 

There will always be instances where commercially leased bandwidth goes unused — that’s the price of being prepared. The same holds true for military-owned assets, satellites included.

With Mr. Kendall’s backing, the 90-day study could lay the groundwork for bold, concrete steps toward fully leveraging the capabilities of a robust commercial satellite sector that is more than eager to work with the Pentagon to solve a very challenging problem. Alternatively, the study’s organizers can play it safe and focus on improving efficiency within the existing framework, in which case this rare opportunity will be lost.