A New Strategy for (Some) Defense Acquisitions

by

When it comes to national security there are at least two things you can bet on safely.

First, that the satellite-provided broadband and narrowband needs of U.S. forces will continue to expand dramatically. Second, that the shortfall between need and supply will expand at the same rate or worse unless we change the way we procure, deploy and operate assets in the sky. Operational commanders and forces have a voracious appetite for accuracy, connectivity and persistence, and their needs and demands will unquestionably grow.

In 1992, U.S. Air Force Gen. Chuck Horner, commander of the Allied Air Force, called Operation Desert Storm “the first space war,” referring to the pivotal role that space assets had in waging and winning the conflict on the ground. Allied forces had superior situational awareness, superior intelligence, superior connectivity and superior accuracy of weapon delivery. All of this was enabled by an array of space assets that illuminated and focused the vast, dangerous and disorienting desert in day and night.

Since then, our forces have improved enormously with new weapons, new tactics and new levels of joint and coalition operations, all enabled by a rapidly expanding demand and availability of space capabilities, especially communications satellites.

However, the Department of Defense (DoD) has had limited means to meet this exponential growth in demand for military satellite communications.

DoD can rely to a degree on its own programs to acquire and operate systems like DSCSIII, Milstar, Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites, the Mobile User Objective System and Wideband Global Satcom. It can also rent commercial capability that may be available over the combat arenas, operating in frequencies that approximate those tailored for military needs.

Both of these play crucial roles in fulfilling the needs and filling the gaps for the ever-increasing demand for and dependency on bandwidth and flexibility, and yet each has its own limitations and combined they still face an ever-yawning gap between demand and supply.

The deficiencies in the space acquisition programs are well documented. Numerous studies from the Government Accountability Office, the Rand Corp. and others have analyzed the matter and confirmed the problems. In short, traditional acquisition of space capabilities for DoD costs too much, takes too long and are too inflexible to completely meet the needs of rapidly evolving operational forces.

The commercially provided space-based communications business is more like the real estate business than the national security business. The commercial sector’s goal is to “fill the available space” offered to the highest bidder, not to fill the existing “need.” Commercially leased communications services are driven by supply and demand among commercial users and therefore are scarce resources. They are available where the provider has a viable business case, as well as space real estate and landing rights — not necessarily where the U.S. military has urgent needs.

Further, commercial communications satellites operate in commercial frequency bands that are different and usually not compatible with military communications equipment and operations, thus necessitating the acquisition of commercial, non-interoperable user equipment.

There are creative solutions out there. Take, for example, the one articulated by the new and only American-based, privately financed and operated military satellite communications (milsatcom) provider, US Space LLC. US Space was created to fill the gaps and ease the limitations of acquiring dedicated milsatcom systems and the leasing of existing satellite commercial capacity — an augmentation. It is also the sole related commercial concern with only one customer — the U.S. government.

The augmentation is simple. The government commits to purchase capacity on privately financed, commercially developed military communications satellites that are launched into government controlled slots, and are compatible with precise government frequencies and user equipment. Thus the government customer can receive the needed services that are compatible with their installed base of receivers and pay only when the service is delivered. All technical and business risks reside solely with the provider. The US Space option provides rapid deployment on a fee for service basis to support soldiers on the ground today.

This is a new model and represents a crucial addition to our existing and rapidly changing milsat security communications infrastructure.

The Defense Department will always need to build specialized satellite capabilities acquired through the defense acquisition process, and these will always provide the backbone of our military requirements. DoD will continue — and should continue — to lease commercial satellite communications to fill gaps and augment capability when the match between commercial supply and military needs overlap to a significant extent.

But the system still urgently needs more flexible options, better tailored to respond solely to the special needs of U.S. military forces around the world. It’s time to open the doors to a new way.

Edward D. Horowitz, a consultant on satellite telecommunications, is a former president and chief executive of SES Americom.