Defense budget bill creates path for future network of military, commercial communications satellites

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The Pentagon must submit an acquisition strategy that includes both government and commercial space systems, said congressional appropriators.

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has to explain how it will buy communications services from the private sector to supplement military satellites, congressional appropriators said in a report last week.

The language from the House Appropriations defense subcommittee picks up where it left off in March when it inserted $600 million in the 2018 Air Force budget for the procurement of two new military communications satellites. In a report accompanying the 2019 defense spending bill, the subcommittee directs the Pentagon to look further into the future of its space-based communications.

The Pentagon must submit a “wideband and narrowband communications architecture and acquisition strategy” that includes both government and commercial space systems, appropriators wrote.

To help move things along, the subcommittee approved $49.5 million to create a new “program of record for commercial satellite communications” within the Air Force. The money was taken out of an existing account that pays for “pathfinder” projects that the Air Force has been pursuing with satcom firms.

Industry insiders told SpaceNews that the HAC-D language marks a major turning point in the years-long effort by the satellite services sector to increase its footprint in military communications.

By demanding a new procurement strategy and funding a commercial services program office, lawmakers are lighting a fire under the Air Force. The committee noted it has been disappointed so far by the lack of a long-term plan to buy commercial satellite communications services. Critics have said for years that the military is not taking advantage of the available capacity. Of 1,738 operational satellites in orbit today, 31 percent are for commercial communications, according to Bryce Space & Technology.

Air Force officials have argued that efforts have been slow because the service has not had the procurement or the funding authority to buy commercial satcom services wholesale. Congress agreed, and in last year’s defense policy bill transferred the responsibility for buying commercial satcom from the Defense Information Systems Agency to the Air Force Space Command. This year’s appropriation bill goes further by making commercial satcom a “program of record.”

“The committee is looking holistically at the space architecture,” said one industry official. “This is a monumental move by the committee.”

The congressional directive comes on the footsteps of a two-year study by a group of Air Force and Defense Department officials on the future of wideband satellite communications. Currently the military operates its own constellation of Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellites. Ten have been acquired from Boeing, and Congress in March added $600 million for two more. The Pentagon buys commercial services from different vendors when it needs extra capacity. In the future, the military wants to be able to tap commercial satellite services in a seamless network, but that requires major changes in how satcom is procured.

Defense officials insist they want commercial services to be “integrated” in a government-industry network. But they have not had a “budget environment that can support that,” the industry official said. The HAC-D has made that happen.

Future communications network
The new program office for commercial satcom will have to figure out how to provide “managed services.” That would require access to satcom capacity from different vendors from a single network, and the ability to switch from one to another based on the demand or when there is a disruption.

Lt. Gen. David “DT” Thompson, vice commander of Air Force Space Command, is overseeing the transfer of commercial satcom authority from DISA. Officials from Air Force Space Command and from the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center are hashing out the details of how this new authority will be carried out.

Another looming issue is what user terminals would be needed for the future “enterprise” network. The HAC-D said the secretaries of the military services should establish a joint program office to address these questions.

User terminals are no small matter for the Pentagon. The military owns about 17,000 satcom terminals and many would not be compatible with modern commercial networks. One proposed solution is to make software upgrades, said John Monahan, senior vice president of Kratos Federal Satellite Solutions.

The company received a contract for a pilot program to prototype an enterprise network of commercial and government satcom. “We’re building an agnostic interface that allows you to use existing terminals to be able to talk to all satellites,” Monahan told SpaceNews. Software also can be added to provide “situational awareness,” he said. “That allows you to answer questions like, ‘Are we getting jammed and interfered with? If so, do we have insight on what satellites are available that we can switch to?’”

All military terminals theoretically could get this interface, said Monahan. But it would not be realistic to modify all 17,000. For some users and applications, it might make more sense to replace older systems with modern terminals that support many frequencies.

The military’s future network could take years to materialize, a key reason why the HAC-D directed the Air Force to buy two more WGS satellites. There is a strong desire in the military to use commercial space capabilities but the Pentagon still wants to have its own satellites, said Carissa Bryce Christensen, founder and CEO of Bryce Space & Technology.

“I have never met anyone in the government who did not think that government use of commercial satellite capacity was critical to the national security future,” she said last week at a Satellite Industry Association conference. “The consensus view in government and industry is that there are some functions that are more properly conducted by government satellites.”

The government also is closely watching the burgeoning “small satellite” industry and its projected constellations in low-Earth orbit that promise revolutionary global telecommunications and broadband services. A future military network would have to take than into account, Christensen told SpaceNews. “One area that is new and interesting is the use of small sats, and products and services provided by venture funded small sat firms,” she said. “There are multiple programs in which defense organizations are considering and evaluating those capabilities and trying to understand how they might use them.”