Air Force’s Pathfinder program slowed by legal questions
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force’s latest attempt at finding new ways of buying bandwidth from commercial satellite operators is bogged down by legal questions, delaying the next step in a program aimed at helping the Pentagon and industry work more closely together.
As part of its Pathfinder program, the Air Force had planned to experiment with the prelaunch purchase of a full transponder on a commercial communications satellite and then parlay that transponder into access to the satellite operator’s entire constellation. This approach would allow the Air Force to use hardware production funds to buy services from the operator’s best-positioned satellite, rather than being stuck with a full transponder’s worth of capacity on a satellite that might be out of position to meet military needs. The project would also help encourage industry to build their satellites and satellite components to government standards.
The Air Force first issued a request for information for the program, known as Pathfinder 2, in June 2014 and was expected to release a formal solicitation earlier this year. In February, Air Force officials said a contract award had been expected this summer, according to briefing slides obtained by SpaceNews.
But Pathfinder 2 has been slowed by internal questions about whether the Defense Department can legally barter the transponder it purchases for access to a commercial satellite constellation under current appropriations laws.
As a result, the request for proposals expected earlier this year has not yet been released and a contract award before the U.S. government’s 2017 fiscal year begins Oct. 1 appears unlikely.
In a July 5 response to questions from SpaceNews, Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, said the Defense Department is studying the distinction between production funds, traditionally used for building new satellites, and operations and maintenance funds, regularly used for leasing bandwidth.
“The Air Force is evaluating the implications of acquiring commercial transponders in exchange for gaining access to the provider’s constellation,” Greaves said. “In particular, the Air Force is seeking to use production funds for this acquisition instead of the traditional operations and maintenance funds customarily associated with commercial leasing arrangements.”
This type of legal question is exactly what Defense Department leaders hoped to discover by starting the experiments in 2013. Joe Vanderpoorten, the Air Force official who oversees the Pathfinder program, said during a presentation at the MilSatCom conference in June that the Pathfinders are designed to overcome “obstacles of policy, culture and practices.”
The new legal questions throw a wrench in the Pathfinder program, because, in theory, each of the five experiments builds on the success of the previous one. Vanderpoorten described Pathfinder 2 as testing the basis for “foundational trade deals and flexible requirements demonstrations.”
The “purchase of the transponder… demonstrates a long term investment within a constellation, it provides a platform for transponder component demonstration, and it provides a commercial capability to trade for pooled global bandwidth across an operator’s fleet,” a request for information for Pathfinder 2 issued in March 2016 said.
As such, the success of the second Pathfinder would inform the remaining Pathfinders. For example, the third experiment, set to begin in 2017, calls for purchasing a pre-launch commercial Ku-band transponder as part of what the Air Force described as an “advanced trade deal.” The fourth Pathfinder, scheduled for 2018, would consider a “pooled” bandwidth approach and demonstrate what the Air Force describes as an “enterprise-wide global trade deal.”
“The purpose of the COMSATCOM Pathfinder series of programs is to explore the art of the possible under DoD’s current acquisition process and to determine what modifications are required to fully leverage the commercial SATCOM market,” Greaves said.
Representatives from the commercial satellite industry and leaders of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, which provides oversight on military space issues, met July 7 to discuss the Pentagon’s acquisition of commercial satellite bandwidth, including the Pathfinder program.
“The Congress has directed the Department to evaluate and test innovative acquisition approaches to enable more cost-effective and strategic methods, while bringing advanced technologies to the warfighter,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairman of the House subcommittee said in a July 8 email, echoing comments he made about nine months earlier. “The Department is taking steps, however it is moving too slow. We owe it to the warfighters and the taxpayers to move with urgency to address this key area. I will continue close oversight, and engage with the Department and industry to drive results in the near term.”
Under the first Pathfinder contract, awarded in June 2014, the Air Force leased the full Ku-band capacity of an aging satellite covering Africa from SES of Luxembourg for $8 million. When the military’s requirement for commercial satellite capacity shifted back toward the Middle East, the Air Force was able to switch to other capacity, Pentagon officials say.