House Defense Bill Funds Satcom Pilot Projects, Denies New Weather Satellite

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WASHINGTON — Defense authorization legislation approved May 8 by the House Armed Services Committee directs the Pentagon to spend up to $300 million over six years on pilot projects to explore new ways to procure commercial satellite bandwidth.

The proposed legislation, if adopted, also would upend U.S. Air Force plans to begin work next year on a low-cost weather satellite.

In a markup of the defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2015, the committee recommended that the Defense Department “examine the feasibility of expanding the use of working capital funds to acquire commercial satellite communications services” to meet the military’s needs. The bill language would limit annual funding on commercial satellite telecom pilot projects to $50 million.

The Pentagon has long faced criticism from Congress and the commercial satellite industry that its bandwidth buying habits are outdated and inefficient. In recent months, however, there have been indications that the Pentagon might be ready to explore alternatives.

In March, for example, the U.S. Air Force issued a draft of a long-awaited solicitation for commercial satellite capacity covering western Africa. The solicitation coincided with an announcement by Teri Takai, the Defense Department’s former chief information officer, that the Pentagon would pursue a series of pilot projects aimed at demonstrating new procurement schemes for commercial satellite capacity.

The markup language directs the Defense Department to provide incentives for industry to participate in the pilot program and consider the need for a surge in capacity as global events warrant.

However, the draft legislation explicitly precludes multiyear procurement of commercial satellite services, something industry has said would allow it to offer the government lower rates and better tailor its infrastructure to Defense Department needs.

Long-term leases are among the pilot projects outlined in Takai’s announcement, which was made to a gathering of industry executives here.

Meanwhile, the draft bill recommends denying the Air Force’s $39 million request to begin work next year on a new generation of low-cost weather satellites to replace the venerable Defense Meteorological Satellite Program in the coming years. Instead, the committee says the Air Force should spend $34 million in 2015 procuring a launcher for the last of the legacy satellites. The bill adds $135 million to the Air Force’s main satellite launching program for that same purpose, with the stipulation that the launch be competitively procured.

Continuing a pattern of recent years, the draft bill authorizes $30 million next year for the Air Force-led Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office. The office, established at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, in 2007, is tasked with quickly developing low-cost space capabilities in response to emerging military needs. The U.S. Air Force has been seeking to close the office — the service requested no money for the office in 2015 — but has been stymied to date by Congress.

The office is expected begin work this year on at least one of two proposed satellites. One of the satellites, ORS-2, would carry a radar sensor for ground reconnaissance; the other, ORS-5, would be used for space surveillance.

House Markup of 2015 Defense Bill

House Markup of 2015 Defense Bill

The markup also authorizes $20 million for planning and design of a potential third missile interceptor site near the East Coast of the United States.

The current U.S. territorial shield features 30 interceptors at two sites: four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California; and 26 at Fort Greely, Alaska.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in March 2013 that the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency would increase the number of interceptors at Fort Greely and scout sites for a third U.S. installation, something Republican lawmakers have pushed for in recent years.

The Pentagon recently announced it would conduct environmental impact studies at four sites in the eastern United States.