Lt. Gen. Charles Croom and Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch
Director of Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), and Director of DISA’sSatcom Teleport and Services Program Executive Office
The U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is the world’s largest single buyer of commercial satellite communications services, but even 800-pound gorillas are not immune to shifting markets.
When the military launched wars in and , it benefited from a glut of commercial satellite capacity in and around those regions, and DISA’s buying power enabled it to secure transponders for what the agency says was 25 percent below the going market rate. Now, however, capacity in the regions is in short supply; DISA has acknowledged that it recently was unable to secure commercial Ku-band services in
Some 80 percent of the satellite bandwidth used by the military comes from the commercial sector. DISA, a combat support agency responsible for network planning and management, procures the lion’s share of that capacity – some $350 million worth annually – mostly through the Defense Satellite Transmission Services-Global (DSTS-G) contracting vehicle, which is set to expire in 2011. Although the U.S. Air Force is deploying new generations of communications satellites with unprecedented capacity, few believe the military will be able to wean itself from commercial services, particularly given its increasing use of bandwidth-hungry platforms like unmanned aerial vehicles.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Croom took the reins of DISA in 2005, overseeing a $7.8 billion budget and some 6,800 civilian and military personnel spread across 29 field offices worldwide. He also serves as commander of U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Task Force on Global Network Operations.
Under Croom’s tenure, bandwidth in the military’s unclassified internal communications network, the NIPRNet, has increased fivefold, while bandwidth in the classified SIPRNet has doubled. The military’s need for satellite bandwidth to support wars in and also has grown steadily.
Croom is set to retire July 22, ending a 35-year career in the Air Force. A successor has not yet been named; U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Elizabeth Hight, DISA’s vice director, will take over in the interim. Croom and Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, director of DISA’sSatcom Teleport and Services Program Executive Office, spoke recently with Space News staff writer Turner Brinton.
What is the optimal mix of commercial and military satellite communications capacity?
Croom: Utilizing commercial services allows us the flexibility to modify what capabilities we have and to grow and expand quickly. It takes us a long time to design and launch a military satellite. So I think continuing with this robust mix is a wise way forward.
Is the military’s oft-cited 80/20 ratio of commercial to military satellite communications capacity still accurate?
Cowen-Hirsch: That ratio is still the same today. We are replenishing our wideband fleet with the first launch of the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) system. The first satellite is on orbit, and we will eventually fill out the constellation with six birds.
Croom: So the ratio’s going to change. The first WGS satellite is almost equivalent to the entire legacy constellation we have today, so it comes with a lot of bandwidth. Obviously our requirements exceed our capacity today. So we’re going to be able to satisfy new requirements, plus maybe draw down slightly on the commercial side and make that ratio a little different.
How do you expect the level of commercial capacity to change?
Cowen-Hirsch: In the next several years as the WGS fleet comes on orbit, our reliance on commercial satcom will drop down. Not dramatically, however, and it will take time. As our military satellites begin to synchronize with the scheduled deployment of new terminals, there will be a subtle drawdown of the commercial capabilities as we begin to balance our utilization.
Do commercial satellite operators need to do more to protect their satellites?
Croom: We design our military satellites to operate in environments [where] commercial satellites would not be able to operate. But some commercial satellites are offering those types of capabilities today just because the [radio frequency] environment is getting tougher and tougher to operate in. Although we have concerns about operations against satellites, one advantage commercial satellites have is they are internationally owned. There are lots of users on there besides the Department of Defense. So anyone who looks to take down a commercial satellite through jamming or other means has to give broader consideration to the repercussions from the international community. That provides us some protection.
Does DISA plan to continue procuring commercial capacity via intermediaries after DSTS-G expires or will the agency contract directly with satellite operators?
Cowen-Hirsch: We are certainly advantaged by that competition that [the current] model provides. So we envision that we will maintain that as an element for our future. We are looking at a number of different types of arrangements as we consider the future of acquiring commercial communications capacity. We are also seeing an increase in requirements for managed services as well as end-to-end services. So we’ll roll those and other offerings into our future acquisition plans.
Might the future include more long-term deals than are currently in place?
Cowen-Hirsch: It could potentially include that. We have full flexibility and full authority to utilize long-term leasing today, and in fact we do that on a number of our bandwidth leasing orders through DSTS-G. So as the customers have budgets available and defined requirements for the future, we will maintain the flexibility to do long-term leases.
Given the uncertain future of the Transformational Satellite Communications (T-Sat) system, how can DISA address the military’s communications-on-the-move requirement?
Croom: I think we have the right program in T-Sat. That’s what it was developed for. We need to get on and deliver it. I’ve been a strong proponent of a fixed schedule on that. I believe the requirements growth might be asking too much of it. No matter what capability we get up there, it’s going to be better than what we have today.
Where does information security rank on your priority list?
Croom: It’s all about getting the right information to the right place at the right time for operational commanders. Information security is no more important than reliability. So when we design our networks and programs, we look at getting the information there reliably, getting it there securely, and delivering it in a format commanders can make decisions with. If you don’t have all of that, you don’t have any of it.
In what areas must your work force expand?
Croom: The network operations work force has to expand. We’ve got about 400 people here responsible for the global operation of 5 million users, and our networks run through 85 nations. This is a huge global network. We actually need more people to work on security and network intelligence. And I think the intelligence community has to beef up a little bit in terms of getting more intelligence on the threats to our networks.
General, as you leave DISA, what would you say are the top priorities for your successor?
Croom: The first priority of any commander is to take care of the people he commands. Second is making sure there continues to be a clear vision and a clear strategy. We can’t be all things to all people, so we’ve got to pick those half -dozen things that are really important and make sure the work force is lined up behind those. The third thing is metrics. Once the vision is laid out, you’ve got to lay the measurements behind that to make sure you’re checking your progress. This is a combat support agency. Delivering warfighting capabilities to those young men and women is of prime importance, and we work long hours to do that right.
Where are you headed?
Croom: I will take a little time off, and then I’ll be out in the commercial world looking for a job.