Military buyers struggle to sort through glut of commercial satellite communications services

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Air Force satellite communications buyers would like to see commercial vendors team up into a consortium.

LONDON — The U.S. Air Force has for years been trying to answer the question: How should the Defense Department acquire space-based communications and ensure it can meet future demands?

A study the Air Force completed this summer,  the Wideband Communications Services Analysis of Alternatives, didn’t provide clear-cut answers but suggested DoD needs a mix of military-owned satellites and commercial services.

“In the not too distant future, in the next couple of years, we are going to have to make a decision,” said Tom Becht, interim director of the military satellite communications directorate at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.

Speaking Nov. 7 at the 2018 Global MilSatcom conference, Becht said the Air Force has to figure out how to fill a projected gap in satellite communications capacity in the coming decade. DoD currently relies on the military Wideband Global Satcom constellation and leases satellite capacity from commercial vendors to supplement WGS.

Industry satcom providers have offered the Air Force different options for “managed services,” where the government would sign up for satellite connectivity like consumers buy internet and cable from Comcast or Verizon. One reason DoD is not sold on this idea is that commercial satellite services are typically not compatible with most of the terminals, antennas and modems that the military owns. Another objection to buying managed services is that DoD wants flexibility to buy from many vendors and does not want to have to commit to a single provider.

“This is a big challenge,” said Becht. The Air Force is aware of the array of satcom services that are available, “but we don’t want to have each company come up and say, ‘We can do this for a couple of hundred million dollars,’” he said.

Becht suggested companies should team up and offer services as a group. “We would be looking for a consortium view on how to supply DoD more commercial capability,” he said. Unless vendors are willing to do that, the likely alternative will be the status quo: Leased bandwidth and additional purchases of WGS satellites.

“Personally, the last wideband system I want to build is WGS-11 and -12,” Becht said. Congress inserted funds for WGS 11 and 12 in the fiscal year 2018 defense budget and directed the Air Force to submit a plan for how it plans to provide wideband communications in the future.

In the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, Congress also ordered the Defense Information Systems Agency to transfer the responsibility for buying commercial bandwidth to the Air Force Space Command. The new office is being set up in the coming weeks and is expected to help direct future procurements of commercial services.

Leasing commercial bandwidth is convenient but not a sustainable option in times of growing cyber threats, sid Becht.“Commercial satcom capabilities are coming up to speed but there’s still a lot of work to be done in cybersecurity especially when we look at contested environments.”

Separately from the wideband analysis, the Air Force is moving forward with a plan to develop a new military constellation and secure tactical satcom architecture for military forces that would fight in areas where adversaries are likely to jam satellite signals and interfere with networks on the ground.

But the problem of how to supply future wideband has not been solved. Becht said commercial satcom vendors know what DoD wants, but they have not come up with an acceptable approach to sell their services to the military. “We have been planning requirements for a long time with pilot programs, pathfinders. We’ve had exchanges where we articulated where we want to go,” he said. “But we still see a lot of independent commercial offerings from satcom providers. They are all good. But it would be nice, instead of having 135 terminals, that we could figure out how to do this from an enterprise perceptive.”

Such a consortium would not be initiated by DoD, however, he said. It would have to be organized by the companies themselves.

Becht’s comments on the terminals point to a huge obstacle in DoD efforts to acquire commercial satcom services: It has an inventory of tens of thousands of satellite terminals that would not be compatible with commercial networks. DoD said it cannot afford to replace all those terminals, and is investigating options to upgrade them with software.

“An inflexible terminal architecture makes it hard to manage this enterprise,” said Becht. The Air Force study identified 150 types of wideband terminals across the military inventory.

“Terminals are a huge issue,” he said. “We’re looking for secure, affordable, common standards. We need your help,” Becht told the audience of industry executives. “The recapitalization of terminals is our biggest worry, it amounts to billions of dollars,” he said. Until the terminals and antennas issue is resolved, it will be difficult to provide wideband connectivity with global roaming.

Becht insisted that vendors should come together to help the government. “If we can’t come to an enterprise view of how commercial fits in, then, yes, we’ll have to go out and buy more purpose-built transponded systems like WGS.”

An example of an enterprise solution would be a “flexible modem interface” to allow users to talk to commercial and government constellations, “some sort of software defined network that links all these things,” he said. “But what is the business model? Pooled bandwidth? We need to figure this out,” he said. “How can you help DoD fill that gap that we have for wideband?”