On National Security | DoD space reshuffle renews uncertainty over commercial satcom procurement
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the March 25, 2019 issue.
One of the twists of the proposed establishment of a Space Force as a separate military branch is that the job of procuring satellite communications services for the U.S. military might again be up for grabs.
Congress in the Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) reassigned the responsibility for the acquisition of commercial satcom services to Air Force Space Command. The job previously belonged to the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), which officially transferred satcom procurement to Air Force Space Command Dec. 12.
This arrangement may be shortlived, however. If Congress approves the Pentagon’s proposal to stand up a U.S. Space Force in fiscal year 2020, the functions and authorities of Air Force Space Command would be revoked, and its responsibilities would shift to the new military branch and to a unified combatant command, U.S. Space Command. However, per the Space Force proposal, satcom procurement would be assigned to the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force.
To be clear, what we are talking about here is the procurement of commercial services, not the acquisition of communications satellites. That authority resides with the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. The military relies on its own satellites for tactical communications but also buys bandwidth from commercial satellite operators to supplement coverage.
It was about two years ago that Congress decided to take the job away from DISA. Lawmakers had become frustrated with the Defense Department’s management of satcom procurement and wanted to empower space commanders to buy what they needed to support forces in the field. The move was well received by commercial satellite operators who had argued for years that commercial bandwidth should be integrated into the military communications architecture rather than acquired on the spot market to fill urgent demands.
When Congress directed the transfer of responsibilities from DISA to Air Force Space Command, there was a scramble to figure out how that would be accomplished. The solution was for the command to directly absorb the DISA satcom procurement office at Fort Meade, Maryland.
Now comes another space reorganization with potentially major implications for satcom procurement. Per DoD’s Space Force proposal, the “Secretary of the Air Force, in consultation with the Chief Information Officer of the Department of Defense, shall be responsible for the procurement of commercial satellite communications services for the Department of Defense.”
Congress has yet to review the proposal and there is no clear sense of where this might go. Several lawmakers have suggested the Pentagon’s Space Force legislative blueprint will not pass in its current form; the House Armed Services Committee is expected to write its own version.
Another wrinkle in the debate is the role of the soon-to-be-created U.S. Space Command, which will absorb elements of Air Force Space Command and U.S. Strategic Command.
The directive in the 2018 NDAA to hand satcom procurement to Air Force Space Command was unusual because purchases of products and services in DoD normally flow through the military services’ acquisition organizations. Lawmakers were hearing complaints from the commercial satcom industry about the continued lack of an integrated satcom architecture and the out-of-left-field nature of the decision by congressional defense committees to turn things over to Air Force Space Command.
Industry sources said STRATCOM Commander Gen. John Hyten has argued that U.S. Space Command should have authorities to acquire “integrated satcom services.” Even though combatant commands don’t do acquisition, Congress might step in to give U.S. Space Command special authorities if they believe warfighters will be best supported by that approach.
One of the lingering concerns in the satcom industry is that there is still no plan to integrate commercial services into the military satcom architecture. It’s a complicated matter because it requires changes in how the government negotiates contracts, how funds are budgeted and appropriated, as well as changes to satcom systems on the ground. And it’s not clear how Air Force Space Command or any other organization is prepared to do that. Change in how products and services are acquired in DoD does not come easy.
If a Space Force is established under the Department of the Air Force, returning satcom procurement to the service would seem logical. Congress, however, could have other ideas.
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.