Editorial | New Hurdle for Commercial Military Satcom

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A recent report by the U.S. Department of Defense suggests that commercial satellite operators still have some work ahead as they seek to fully ensconce themselves into the future military satellite communications architecture.

The “Commercial Satellite Communications Strategy Report,” delivered to Congress in September, identifies the longstanding impediments to using commercial bandwidth more efficiently and outlines some potential work-arounds. But it is clear that the report’s authors view the role of commercial satellites as secondary to that of the U.S. Air Force-owned Wideband Global Satcom system.

Most notably, the report claims that commercial bandwidth costs the government four times as much, on average, as comparable WGS capacity. It also says the military’s own satellites — it did not mention WGS in this context — are superior to commercial satellites in the areas of command-link encryption and resilience against the ever-present threat of jamming.

To date, the X- and Ka-band WGS system consists of six satellites on orbit and four more on order, all designed to last 15 years. Commercial operators, meanwhile, have already seen their relative contribution to satisfying Defense Department communications requirements diminish as more WGS capacity is deployed and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to an end.

The Air Force, which is pondering the future of all of its major satellite constellations, has suggested that it might be done buying WGS satellites, the implication being that commercial satellites would carry the wideband load in the future. But if the report’s conclusions about the cost and resiliency of WGS versus commercial bandwidth are to be believed, it’s hard to make the case for that shift.  

Addressing the report during a recent panel discussion in Washington, satellite industry officials appeared somewhat skeptical of the cost comparison. But absent any insight into the numbers that fed the Defense Department’s analysis, they were hard pressed to dispute the finding.

Some chose to accentuate the report’s positives — and from a satellite operator’s perspective, there were some. 

It acknowledges, for example, the benefits of a more centralized approach to budgeting for commercial bandwidth, particularly as Overseas Contingency Operations funding — drawn from wartime supplemental appropriations that fall outside the normal budgeting process — dry up. Currently, the combatant commands, services and defense agencies place capacity orders on an ad hoc basis, without regard for potential cost-saving efficiencies like bandwidth sharing and demand aggregation.

The report also pinpointed a legal obstacle to the multiyear transponder lease arrangements long sought by industry that should be addressable through simple legislation. To wit, under current law, satellite communications is not specifically listed among the services that the Defense Department is authorized to contract for without funding potential termination liabilities at the time of the award.

The report further says the Pentagon will evaluate alternative approaches to procuring commercial capacity, including upfront investments, as opposed to annual service contracts that fall under different procurement rules, to determine whether these could help reduce costs. 

But the report prominently cited a directive from the Senate authorizers who requested that alternative arrangements for procuring commercial satellite capacity “should only be used where the use of DOD or other government satellites are not available or is more costly than in the private sector.”

That proviso is why the finding about the cost of commercial versus WGS bandwidth is so important. 

The Senate authorization language calls for the Government Accountability Office to review the acquisition strategies outlined in the report within 90 days of its delivery. That’s well and good, but it is unclear what constraints the GAO will be under in conducting that review, or how deeply it will delve into the Defense Department’s cost analysis.

If commercial operators truly believe they can provide WGS-equivalent services on a cost-competitive basis, they should welcome and encourage a full and open accounting of the cost figures, assumptions and methodologies used in the Pentagon’s analysis. 

Should that not be forthcoming in the GAO audit, industry’s supporters in Congress — Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, comes to mind — should insist on a separate, completely independent cost evaluation by the GAO and make the results public.

Few doubt that commercial satellites are an integral part of the solution to the military’s insatiable appetite for bandwidth — whether or not the Air Force opts for more WGS satellites or a follow-on wideband system. But in the continued absence of publicly available, apples-to-apples cost data that take into account a wide range of plausible utilization scenarios — the Pentagon seems especially wary of leasing commercial capacity it might not use — it will be difficult if not impossible to determine where commercial satellites fit into the overall architecture and plan accordingly.

 

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