LONDON — Congress last year directed U.S. Air Force Space Command to assume responsibility for the procurement of commercial satellite communications services for the Department of Defense no later than December 2018. That job previously was held by the Defense Information Systems Agency.

“We’re ready to start a new chapter,” said Clare Grason, who is division chief for satellite communications at the Defense Information Systems Agency but in six weeks will report to Air Force Space Command.

A management shakeup in the procurement of military satcom has been a long time in the making. Military commanders have argued that the acquisition process led by DISA was not responsive to operators’ needs and Congress moved in to legislate the change. Grason has been in charge of satcom acquisition at DISA but she insists that the transfer to Air Force Space Command is more than just a badge swap.

“We have tremendous support from Air Force Space Command leaders Gen. Jay Raymond and Lt. Gen. D.T. Thompson,” Grason said Nov. 7 at the 2018 Global MilSatcom conference. “They are excited to be inheriting the mission. Our team is looking forward to an unprecedented window of opportunity to transform how we acquire commercial satcom.”

Raymond and other senior officials have said they want commercial satellite bandwidth to be integrated into the military communications architecture to avoid situations where satcom is procured but the users don’t have the right terminal for a particular satellite because the architecture is not interoperable.

Grason said her office will develop an acquisition strategy in 2019 to meet commanders’ requirements. Congress appropriated $49.5 million in the Pentagon’s budget for fiscal year 2019 to set up the new office.

“We’re seeing a different type of support to get after the transformation, to elevate commercial satcom to where it needs to be, as vital infrastructure,” said Grason.

As part of the transition, Air Force Space Command will absorb the Enhanced Mobile Satellite Services program, also known as the Iridium satellite program office, as well as DISA’s commercial satellite leasing team. Grason said DISA today has 91 active satcom leases that are worth about $4.5 billion. “Clearly the DoD is making a substantial investment in commercial satcom today,” she said. “However our acquisition approach really doesn’t reflect the vital infrastructure that commercial satcom inherently is.”

Other parts of DISA’s satcom operations that deal with ground systems and gateway integration of commercial satellites will remain in the agency, she said. “As commercial satcom transitions to Air Force Space Command, I do envision long term strategic partnerships with DISA, the agency being the center of gravity for long haul telecommunications,” she explained. “Many of our commercial satellite  leases downlink at DoD teleports and other facilities. That will certainly endure.”

Grason mentioned there will be significant changes in the how contractors are selected to supply satcom services. Instead of awarding contracts based on price, Air Force Space Command wants to use other criteria. “We’ll apply greater scrutiny and due diligence to our methods of acquiring satcom,” she said. “Today over 95 percent of our leases are evaluated and signed on a LPTA basis,” she said. That is short for “lowest price technically available.” That approach in the majority of cases is “suboptimal,” said Grason. “Over the next year we have an initiative to compete our contracts on a best value tradeoff basis while we develop a more comprehensive acquisition strategy for buying and using satcom differently.”

One reason LPTA contracting is favored by DoD managers is that it almost guarantees that losing bidders can’t protest the decision. While price is a clear-cut metric, “best value” is harder to measure. “It necessitates a different skillset” from contracting officers, Grason said. “We’re actively looking for feedback from industry on what that criteria should be,” he said. “We’re developing a best value tradeoff playbook” that will be influenced by the users’ requirements.

Fear of protests should not drive government decisions, Grason said. “What the government has to get better at is litigating. Companies are entitled to protest when they believe a decision is flawed or unfair but I believe too often our approach is centered around addressing protests versus what’s in the best interest of meeting mission.”

Grason noted that the protest issue is “well beyond the scope of what I’m responsible for” and that her immediate goal is to make sure military users get the service they need. “And I think it starts with planting the seed across all stakeholders that we need to do deals that make sense, and not to just avoid protests.”

Raymond told lawmakers in March that his vision for commercial satcom is for users to be able to “roam” rapidly among different satellite service providers or constellations.

“Our customers are coming to us because military satcom is not meeting mission,” Grason said. “We need to come up with a model that preserves the inherent dynamic nature of commercial satcom and the flexibility it provides.” A forthcoming acquisition strategy “hopefully drives a series of RFPs [requests for proposals] down the road.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...