In spite of the Department of Defense’s best efforts, the Pentagon continues to “shoot behind the rabbit” when it comes to provisioning bandwidth to meet the operational needs of our forces.

DoD’s Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) communications program was canceled earlier this year for many appropriate reasons. Meanwhile, the Wideband Global Services (WGS) program was expanded to add capacity and thus eliminate some commercial satellite communications (satcom) leases that now burden DoD supplementary budgets. Still, one must ask, is this WGS expansion for the right reason, and will it meet operational user requirements? Will WGS and the continuation of current DoD satcom procurement policy meet the current and growing needs of the U.S. military, our warfighters and our homeland security?

Operational Bandwidth Demands

Contemporary military operations continue to demand increasing amounts of bandwidth. Demand for connectivity will only increase; it is the nature of the technology-intensive world in which we live. The growing need for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) alone will drive an ever-increasing demand for bandwidth. UASs aside, the men and women in our armed forces expect connectivity. They have grown up in an environment of bandwidth availability, when and where they want it. They expect to share information and they expect to be “connected, 24/7.”

Legacy methods of system development, processes of contracting for commercial services, and dated or absent policies related to U.S. commercial space resources must be overhauled to ensure sorely needed bandwidth is provided to our warfighters. Our troops expect leading-edge communications technology. And they need it most particularly when it is time for them to apply force and to prevail in battle.

Military Satcom Systems Development

Procedures for building military systems in conformance with detailed military requirements must evolve to a much more flexible development process to meet the increasing bandwidth demands of our forces. An adaptable process is needed, one based on capabilities industry can produce, within time frames the military needs them, and within DoD budgets.

The commercial satellite industry, in almost every circumstance, has a well-known history of timely deliveries (usually within three years or less), costs within budget (usually at a third or a half of military systems costs), and highly reliable performance (with capabilities that meet most military operations requirements). The Pentagon sorely needs a much more flexible development model that clearly favors time-definite fielding, commercial-builder risk assumptions and responsive capabilities.

Contracting for Commercial Satcom Needs

Current DoD contracting processes have been crafted to acquire commercial satcom services by responding to well-specified needs, properly executed through a detailed workflow process, and supported with a funding document to pay the bill. These methodical procedures do not generate the best value solution. DoD, for the most part, buys these services on spot markets, where demand is high and competition for bandwidth goes to the highest bidders. This is akin to an individual trying to book a hotel at the last minute, in a town hosting a national sports event — you either pay a premium or you take what you can get and hope for the best.

The DoD also has a 10 year history of using Supplemental Operations and Maintenance appropriations to finance commercial satcom needs. Without a normal budget process that serves as a forecast to industry, there is no signal with respect to where commercial industry should channel its scarce investment resources.

Two simple actions will go a long way in giving the DoD better value and generating a closer working relationship with the commercial satcom industry:

  • a Program Objective Memorandum and budget line for commercial satcom that is visible to the industry; and
  • development of policies to address the role of commercial satcom industry in the national defense equation.

These two actions are necessary and essential first steps toward a government and industry partnership that will meet future bandwidth needs better, faster and cheaper than we have in the past.

Commercial Satcom Policy

As the government and commercial industry continue to work toward greater cooperation at this critical time in our history, the DoD must recognize the vital national resource that the commercial satellite industry provides. The Pentagon should review its current, relatively weak policies with respect to commercial satellite services procurement; it needs to strengthen and build on the framework whereby commercial satellites currently provide for more than 80 percent of DoD’s communications bandwidth requirements. As the nation faces growing national security issues, and the DoD prepares for a Quadrennial Defense Review, we clearly need commercial satellite acquisition solutions that will work efficiently and continue to take advantage of the great strength represented by commercial bandwidth providers.

Additionally, the government needs to consider and plan for emergency preparedness related to global connectivity. This should be an initiative similar to the mid-1980s when the DoD led government efforts to address National Security Emergency Preparedness issues related to domestic telephony and connectivity in the aftermath of the breakup of AT&T. In all of these cases, the commercial satcom industry can be an adaptable and capable partner in addressing the government’s future communications needs and solutions.

Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently addressed some of these communications policy issues at an Air Force Information Technology Conference. He talked about the need for DoD to move away from the current operating model where users on the operating edge (often called the disadvantaged user) have to pull communications and information services from the core. He rightfully and articulately suggested that the model needs to be inverted; that the core activities of the Global Information Grid should be to push service to users operating forward and on the edge of the battlefront.

This “Push vs. Pull” concept needs further elaboration. DoD should make satellite bandwidth acquisition policy focus on enabling and strengthening capabilities all the way to the edge of the battlefield. Furthermore, DoD should transform commercial satcom contracting processes and workflow to efficiently support global operations. This will foster real change in the way the government views the innovation and flexibility of the commercial satcom industry.

Future success will depend on a rich, commercial satellite communications industrial base — a base that is reliable, trusted and ready to help the U.S. military achieve success, both in peacetime and most especially when it is time to operate and apply force.


William J. Donahue, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general, is a government consultant, actively supporting systems integration, space, cyber-security and information technology companies. Prior to retiring from the Air Force, he served as the Air Force director of communications and information, and as commander of the Air Force Communications and Information Center in Washington.