WASHINGTON — In what might be one of four pilot programs in commercial satellite capacity procurement outlined by a senior Pentagon official, the U.S. Air Force on March 7 issued a draft bid solicitation to operators interested in providing bandwidth on an aging satellite to support military needs in Africa.

In a draft request for proposals posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website, Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center said it was interested in leasing a geostationary-orbiting satellite for the remainder of its life to support U.S. Africa Command. The satellite would be in a fuel-saving inclined orbit, meaning not stabilized on its north-south axis, and typical of geostationary-orbiting satellites nearing the end of their service lives.

Inclined-orbit satellites are of limited utility for many applications but can support airborne surveillance activities and short-term surge requirements, industry sources said.

Just days after the announcement, a Defense Department official sketched out a series of possible steps that could ultimately help the Pentagon become a smarter buyer of commercial satellite telecommunications services. Among the so-called pathfinder projects outlined by Terri Takai, the Pentagon’s chief information officer, was leasing an inclined-orbit satellite, although industry officials said it was unclear whether this was specifically linked to the Air Force solicitation.

Takai spoke March 10 at a dinner attended by industry and government officials sponsored by the Satellite Industry Association, a trade group here. Reporters were not invited to the dinner, but several industry sources recounted Takai’s remarks afterward.

In her remarks, Takai offered a glimpse of the preliminary findings of a 90-day Pentagon study of its commercial bandwidth buying habits that was announced one year ago — at the same event — by Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. The review, co-led by Takai, was welcomed by industry officials who have long complained that the Pentagon’s satellite bandwidth buying habits are outmoded and inefficient.

Another pathfinder project outlined by Takai would entail a long-term lease of satellite capacity, which would address what is perhaps industry’s biggest complaint about the Pentagon’s buying habits. Due in part to certain legal limitations on making long-term financial commitments, the Defense Information Systems Agency, which buys commercial satellite capacity on behalf of military users, typically relies on short-term transponder leases. Industry officials say short-term leases are expensive and make it all but impossible for companies to align their infrastructure to better serve what for many of them is the biggest single customer.

Another pathfinder would focus on reducing duplication in Pentagon bandwidth leases, industry sources said. The project, which these sources referred to as aggregation, would entail giving a company, or possibly an agency, access to information on the full range of active leases so it could identify wasteful redundancy.

Several sources said Takai mentioned a fourth pathfinder idea but did not clearly outline what it might entail.

Industry sources noted that none of the ideas put forth by Takai is new. They also said it is not clear whether funding is available to put them into action. 

“What would really be new is to put money behind it,” one source said. 

During a panel discussion March 11 during the Satellite 2014 conference here, industry officials urged the Pentagon not to back away from funding innovation initiatives during an era of shrinking budgets.

“We don’t want to stop in new areas,” said Tom Sheridan, vice president of national security space for the SI Organization, a systems engineering and integration contractor. Sheridan pointed to the success of the pioneering Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload mission, in which an experimental missile warning sensor was launched aboard a commercial telecommunications satellite in September 2011.

“Every budget cycle people try to kill these programs,” said Kay Sears, the president of Washington-based Intelsat General, Intelsat’s government-focused subsidiary. “We have a lot of good ideas but they don’t get shepherded through the system.”

Robert Minehart, a senior policy adviser for the House Intelligence Committee, encouraged the commercial satellite industry to seek out House members and share their ideas. 

“You really have to knock on the door,” he said.

Meanwhile, industry officials said they were awaiting further details of the 90-day study, the results of which will not be released to the public. 

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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.