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

WASHINGTON — In an effort to improve how it buys commercial satellite bandwidth, the U.S. Defense Department is expected to propose a series of test procurements that could eventually open the door for commercial satellite operators to expand their Pentagon business.

The efforts, known as pathfinders, are part of a broader plan, almost a year in the making, that details how to “better leverage, integrate, and acquire COMSATCOM [commercial satellite communications] through a phased implementation approach involving short, mid and long term actions,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, a Defense Department spokesman.

Further details about the plan are expected to be discussed during a March 10 leadership dinner for satellite executives at the Satellite 2014 conference here. Pentagon Chief Information Officer Terri Takai, one of the leaders of the review, is the scheduled speaker.  

A final report, which is not expected to be released to the public, will include several smaller-scale, fact-finding activities that could lead to “prospective longer-term investment and acquisition solutions that vary in size, scope, and scale,” Pickart said. 

At the Satellite 2013 leadership dinner in February 2013, Frank Kendall, U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition, logistics and technology, announced that the Pentagon would launch a 90-day review of its commercial bandwidth purchasing practices. The study was slow to get started, however, and as it dragged on, commercial satellite operators, who have long pushed the Pentagon to adopt new buying habits, including long-term transponder leases, grew skeptical. 

In an emailed response to SpaceNews questions, Pickart suggested that rumors of the study’s demise have been exaggerated, even if he was short on specifics.

“The most practical way-ahead for DoD is to put in place foundational capabilities that will enable informed investment and acquisition decisions,” Pickart said. “These foundational capabilities will be obtained through the procurement of COMSATCOM Management Tools and Services, along with executing a series of pathfinders to eliminate impediments and reduce risk.”

Pickart said the report also recommends which Defense Department organizations should be responsible for specific activities to create efficiencies in areas such as “requirements validation, demand projection, acquisition and execution/operation of the COMSATCOM solutions.”

The U.S. Air Force has hinted at a willingness to try pathfinders. In September, for example, the service announced it was contemplating a procurement of commercial satellite capacity covering western Africa in a demonstration that industry officials hope is an indication of the Defense Department’s willingness to break buying habits that they say are outmoded and inefficient.

In a request for information released Sept. 16 on the Federal Business Opportunities website, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles said it was interested in leasing multiple transponders for the remainder of a geostationary-orbiting satellite’s life on behalf of U.S. Africa Command.  

Commercial satellite operators have been waiting for a formal request for proposals on the project.

In the meantime, commercial satellite operators had been pursuing another path for reform. In February, representatives from several companies traveled to St. Louis to meet with leaders from U.S. Transportation Command to discuss the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program. That program, in broad terms, allows the military to harness commercial aircraft to help to meet Defense Department needs during times of high demand, such as a war or other crisis.

Satellite operators think the Defense Department could apply a similar model to buying bandwidth.  

Specifically, the amount of business available to a satellite operator in any current year would be tied to the amount of capacity the company pledges to make available in future years, industry official said.

Operators said they have had encouraging discussions with Defense Department officials and congressional staffers on this approach.

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Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...