Commentary | Single Purchasing Agent May Be Best Option for DoD Satcom

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Satellite communication requirements for the U.S. warfighter are currently met by a mix of military and commercial satellites. Military capacity is provided by government-owned satellites procured by the Space and Missile Systems Center, while commercial capacity is leased from the private sector through the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA). As Department of Defense demand for satcom has escalated, government decision-makers have struggled to define the right mix of military satcom and commercial satcom based on capability and cost. 

As a member of his subcommittee, I appreciate the leadership of Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, who has driven DoD to adopt a more a strategic approach to satcom. Under Chairman Rogers’ leadership, the House-passed 2015 National Defense Authorization Act places specific satcom strategy and coordination requirements on the Department of Defense executive agent for space (secretary of the Air Force). This is a very positive first step, but ultimately the United States may need a single purchasing agent to allocate requirements between military and commercial assets to achieve optimum outcomes for both the warfighter and the taxpayer. A single purchasing agent could:

  • Move comsatcom purchasing out of Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding.
     
  • Save taxpayer dollars through smarter acquisition approaches.
     
  • Improve warfighter interoperability.
     
  • Enable better communications protection (i.e., information assurance).

As OCO funding winds down, the DoD must find a new primary funding source for comsatcom, and a single satcom purchasing agent may be the best hope for doing so. After Sept. 11, 2001, Congress appropriated OCO funding to spend beyond the DoD’s base budget. At the same time satcom requirements grew far more rapidly than the DoD could programmatically provide. To meet the demand, the DoD used OCO funding to purchase commercial satcom capacity on the spot market with one-year contracts. This has proved to be the most inefficient and expensive way to purchase comsatcom capacity. 

Additionally, while OCO funding was never intended to be perpetual, it appears comsatcom requirements will continue to grow even as the war effort winds down. To be clear, OCO funding will go away, so the United States must do something proactively to not lose its comsatcom capacity. It is time for the DoD to make comsatcom acquisition programmatic and to appropriately plan for longer-term, more efficient purchasing of capacity. A single satcom purchasing agent could assist in determining total DoD satcom requirements (military and commercial) and allocate resources more effectively while bringing comsatcom within the DoD’s base budget, apart from OCO funding.

It is time to change the way we acquire comsatcom to save taxpayer dollars. Contracts for comsatcom through DISA have been short-term, direct responses to world threats. While this has been necessary in our recent conflicts, this process requires commercial companies to take high risks attempting to anticipate government requirements to make capacity available on the spot market for potential DISA contracts. The high risk increases the cost of capital for commercial satellite providers, which in turn increases the cost of spot market leases and misallocates scarce DoD resources. The warfighter and U.S. taxpayer ultimately pay the price. A single satcom purchasing agent could assist in determining the persistent communication requirements throughout the satcom enterprise and determine a baseline capacity that could be satisfied by commercial satcom companies at the lowest price.

Since warfighter terminals utilizing commercial spectrum (C-band, Ku-band) have been fielded on assets throughout the DoD, it is well understood that the United States will rely on comsatcom for the long haul. Given the contested environments of potential future conflicts, it is also understood that military satcom capabilities and asset terminals are also important for the long haul. We need unique military spectrum utilization, interoperable military waveforms (X-band, Ka-band), anti-jam capabilities, military encryption, and conflict survivability. The incompatibility of comsatcom and milsatcom spectrum and waveforms poses a challenge for DISA and SMC, respectively, as they each attempt to meet the needs of the warfighter. For example, various intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance terminals are comsatcom capable. They cannot be handed off to a milsatcom satellite even if it is better positioned to provide the necessary control. A single satcom purchasing agent might better align comsatcom capacity with comsatcom terminal assets and milsatcom capacity with milsatcom terminal assets, enabling resources to achieve maximum impact while eliminating duplication of resources.

Historically, comsatcom providers have not provided mitigation capabilities for cyberthreats or jamming. These threats continue to grow as the June 9 SpaceNews article on Eutelsat indicated [“Eutelsat Blames Ethiopia as Jamming Incidents Triple,” page 7]. Since comsatcom is a necessary piece of the DoD’s communications architecture, it is necessary to develop basic, accredited information assurance requirements that can be met by comsatcom companies. This will require acquisition planning and cost, which a single purchasing agent would be best suited to manage within the overall satcom enterprise. The goal should be the creation of an information assurance standard that comsatcom companies can expect and execute in any given contract.

The House-passed National Defense Authorization Act made a good first step to coordinate milsatcom and comsatcom requirements and acquisition by placing requirements on the Department of Defense executive agent for space. Ultimately, a single purchasing agent may be necessary to move comsatcom out of OCO funding, decrease costs, improve warfighter interoperability and enable better communications information assurance.

 

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) is a member of the U.S. House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. He is a Navy Reservist and combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, flying the E-2C Hawkeye.