The United States faces a changed reality in national security that requires us to deal with fleeting targets — whether violent extremists, criminal enterprises or new threats in cyberspace. All require the ability to detect, analyze and integrate data in near real time. Current satellite communications cannot provide reliable, robust delivery of actionable information to all the users who need it to support tactical operations and strategic policies.
We also face a changed reality in space: It is congested, contested and competitive, as senior Pentagon officials have so aptly described. More nations are placing more satellites in orbit and showing more muscle in demonstrating and defending them. These conditions, which intensify daily, place our U.S. government-developed space assets at risk and risk compromising the vital information these satellites provide to our military and intelligence community.
In the just-released National Space Policy, U.S. President Barack Obama rightly commits to nurturing the country’s space industry to support national needs, facilitate global competitiveness and advance U.S. leadership in developing new markets and innovative entrepreneurship.
The old ways of acquiring and providing satellite communications simply don’t work in an environment governed by our new realities. Providing both strategic and tactical intelligence in support of national security decision-making and operations requires a new approach. Congress can make our nation more secure and our troops better prepared for operations by changing the way we procure satellite communications services — and should do so with all due speed. Access, assessment and availability of critical information are the keys to protecting our national security in the future.
Congress and the administration should ensure that national security communications services delivered through or from space are robust, resilient and adaptable. This imperative requires diverse communications paths, multiple ground facilities and networks capable of operating while under attack. To this end, we must not only accelerate the acquisition of commercial satellite communications, but also reduce our dependence on foreign-owned providers, who now supply a preponderance of the Defense Department’s satellite communications services.
We should look to the group of American-owned and -operated small businesses and mid-tier providers that are particularly agile and responsive — they can mobilize quickly to deliver the right capabilities, provide a cost-effective solution to our government’s needs, and help to stimulate the shrinking U.S. aerospace industrial base.
For reasons of economy, efficiency and flexibility, the government should buy value-added services, not systems, whenever possible. That which can be commercially outsourced should be outsourced, sparing the government the need to develop satellite communications systems in an expensive and over-regulated government procurement environment.
Greater reliance on the commercial sector will facilitate the emergence of a new public marketplace for satellite communications services and open possibilities to attract private capital to that market. Already we see entrepreneurs bringing fresh ideas and new solutions that will enable us to have satellite communications services with the best attributes of commercial and military solutions — speedy deployment, flexibility on orbit, and attractive financial terms.
Today, the Department of Defense budgeting and procurement rules are obstacles to the efficient acquisition of these highly advantageous commercial services that could provide a much-needed, cost-effective and flexible solution.
Obtaining commercial military satellite communications does not require a technology breakthrough. Solutions available today in the marketplace can meet the military’s communications infrastructure requirements and can augment current space communications programs. These solutions can accommodate rapid, seamless integration with U.S. government and military operations through the use of existing government orbits and military terminals.
What we do need are new attitudes and new rules. Specifically, multiyear commitments should be made more flexible to attract private equity investors; the Office of Management and Budget should re-evaluate the rules that discourage the lease of dedicated military services that don’t have a commercial application; and our leadership should recognize the full potential of commercial capabilities on existing programs of record and future budget plans. Finally, when it is absolutely necessary to acquire systems, the government should insist on fixed-price contracts as the norm, putting the risk burden on industry rather than the taxpayer.
The Department of Defense needs access to dedicated satellite communications from the commercial marketplace. This augmentation of capabilities will provide a major increase in mission assurance across the broad spectrum of national security needs. The recent significant investment in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collection only makes sense when the actionable information can be reliably delivered to operators on remote battlefields and to other intended users.
Congress and the president can and should act in the near term to make commercially provided satellite communications augmentation a reality — before the line goes dead.
Donald M. Kerr is a former principal deputy director of U.S. national intelligence and served as the nation’s 15th director of the National Reconnaissance Office.