Military satellite communications: Buyers can’t make up their minds

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SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

One take-away from last week’s Global MilSatcom conference in London is that the satellite communications industry is giving government buyers more choices than they can handle. While officials insist that competition is a good thing, they are still struggling to figure out the playing field.

Indecision has been the name of the game in military satcom procurements by the United States and the United Kingdom. Technologies are being developed faster than the buying bureaucracies can keep up, and this is slowing down efforts to modernize military networks, officials said at the conference.

VENDORS SHOULD TEAM UP  Industry satcom providers, for example, have offered the U.S. 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 Tom Becht, military satcom director at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC). The government is aware that choices are available but it doesn’t want to be tied down to a single vendor.  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 military-built satellites.

The Air Force Space Command next month will be taking over the responsibility for the procurement of commercial satellite bandwidth. The industry has been anticipating this changeover since Congress put it into law a year ago. Satcom buyer Clare Grason provided some fresh details on how she plans to transform the acquisition of communications services.

The U.K. Ministry of Defence, meanwhile, continues to wrestle with what to do after its current Skynet military satcom services contract with Airbus expires in 2022. MoD’s Julian Knight said the project is at a “crossroads.” One reason is that the government is reluctant to commit to one vendor and create a monopoly. The flip side is that it is not sure how to go about competing the work. Another issue is determining the mix of government-owned Skynet satellites and possibly commercial broadband services that would be combined into an interoperable network. “We are trying to determine the route to the promised land,” Knight said.

GROUND MATTERS  Another theme brought up by multiple officials at the conference is that satcom networks should be planned from the ground up. Organizations like SMC traditionally have focused on the shiny satellite before it worried about the ground segment and the user equipment. This has caused problems across DoD programs as user terminals, command and control systems and network operations lag behind the satellites, often by years. Officials said they are paying more attention to the ground segment to avoid more scenarios where satellites go underutilized because of incomplete ground segment systems.

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