GAO: DoD has no clear plan to acquire satellite-based wideband communications

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DoD should “develop a plan to guide implementation of the Wideband AOA recommendations,” said the Government Accountability Office.

WASHINGTON — The Government Accountability Office says the Pentagon has not figured out how it will meet future demand for wideband satellite communications for military operations even though it has spent years studying the problem.

A study that DoD wrapped up in June 2018, titled Wideband Communications Services Analysis of Alternatives, or Wideband AoA, laid out options for how to move forward but DoD has not taken action to implement those recommendations, the watchdog agency said in a report released Dec. 19.

DoD should “develop a plan to guide implementation of the Wideband AOA recommendations,” GAO said.

The Wideband AoA study was mandated by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016. It directed DoD to identify ways to replace the existing Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellites that are projected to start reaching their end of service life in the early 2030s. The NDAA for Fiscal Year 2017 called on GAO to review DoD’s analysis.

The Wideband AoA study started in December 2016. The final version was given to GAO in June 2019 but was never publicly released.

The AoA found that integrating purpose-built satellites and commercial systems into a hybrid architecture “would save costs and provide more capability than any single purpose-built or commercial system alone,” GAO said. DoD uses a mix of purpose-built and commercial satcom contracts but has not historically managed these systems in coordination. The AoA study team “found that DoD requires a combination of military and commercial system capabilities.”

In the Wideband AoA, DoD found that “any post-WGS solution must continue to provide purpose-built satcom capabilities,” the GAO report said. For example, some users require X-band communications but commercial constellations provide limited X-band communications. DoD nevertheless will rely on commercial systems as part of a future architecture, the report noted.

Cristina Chaplain, GAO’s director of contracting and national security acquisitions, said the AoA was comprehensive and asked the right questions. However, more than a year after its completion, “there is no formal plan to guide and coordinate implementation of the AoA recommendations. Without such a plan, DoD is at increased risk of not having the information it needs to make timely, knowledge-based decisions on future systems to provide critical communications for military operations,” Chaplain wrote.

GAO noted that DoD constellations take, on average, over seven years to develop and launch. DoD spends an average of $4 billion a year to acquire and sustain wideband satellite communications that enable voice, video and data transmissions. The WGS constellation of 10 satellites is maintained and operated by the U.S. Air Force. U.S. Army units control the satellite payloads.

DoD’s indecision on its future wideband architecture has drawn criticism from Congress. Appropriators in May 2018 added $600 million to the Air Force’s budget to procure two more WGS satellites that DoD had not requested. The Air Force is currently negotiating a contract with Boeing for WGS-11.  In Fiscal Year 2019, defense appropriators gave the Air Force explicit guidance to develop an integrated architecture that should include “government and commercial space systems.”

GAO said the addition of one or two more WGS satellites buys some extra time for DoD to implement the AoA recommendations. However, given the typical seven-year development timelines for space systems, DoD will “need to decide on a way forward within the next several years so that new satellites will be available when needed.”

DoD needs a “future wideband architecture that provides critical communications for military operations,” GAO said. Satellites are just one piece. DoD also has to develop a plan to acquire user terminals. GAO said the Wideband AoA suggested DoD should develop a strategy to centralize user terminal procurement but that has not been done. The GAO report said it is “unclear what organization within DoD would begin working with the military services to develop this strategy and potentially adjust the services’ acquisition approach to terminals.”