Satellite industry seeks answers on future direction of military satcom

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SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

The Satellite Industry Association’s 14th annual “DoD Commercial Satcom Workshop” is underway this week in Arlington, Virginia. The conference is considered a prized opportunity for the industry to pitch its latest satellite-based products and services to the Pentagon. The event is not open to media.

This year’s satcom workshop comes amid major questions about the Pentagon’s plans — or lack thereof — to buy more satellite communications services from the private sector.

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Commercial satcom providers are still reeling from a surprise move by Congress that added $600 million to the fiscal year 2018 defense budget for the Air Force to expand the Wideband Global Satcom constellation of military satellites from 10 to 12. The decision guarantees that the military will have more of its own satcom capacity and may need less from commercial services. It was a huge setback to satellite operators that have argued for years that they can provide a better value for the money.

One industry lobbyist described the mood as one of “frustration” following the WGS decision. The appropriators justified it as a necessary bridge to prevent capacity gaps until the future satcom architecture is in place.

So what about the future satcom architecture? The same appropriators who funded WGS also shifted $49.5 million into a new Air Force program line for commercial satcom research, development, testing and evaluation, or RDT&E. Executives are hoping to hear about what will be done with that money. The program only has funding for fiscal year 2019 so the industry is wondering if there will be procurement dollars in 2020 and beyond. They will be looking for answers from one of the keynote speakers at the workshop, Vice Commander of Air Force Space Command, Lt. Gen. David “DT” Thompson.

Congress in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act directed Air Force Space Command to take over responsibility for the procurement of commercial satcom services for the Department of Defense by December 12, 2018. That job previously was held by the Defense Information Systems Agency.

MIXED SIGNALS FROM GOVERNMENT Commercial satcom executives await details on how Space Command plans to buy commercial services other than the way it is done now, in the form of short-term bandwidth leases. Executives were irked by comments made at an industry conference in London last month by Tom Becht, interim director of the military satellite communications directorate at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. He said there is hesitance to commit to commercial satellite services because they are not compatible with most of the terminals, antennas and modems that the military owns. Becht also suggested companies should team up and offer services as a “consortium” to simplify the decision making process for the government.

Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, senior vice president of Inmarsat Government, said she and others in the industry are concerned that there is still no procurement strategy or long-term funding for commercial services. “If they don’t have procurement and O&M [operations and maintenance] funds, then the $49.5 million in RDT&E will not be enough to institute change,” she said. “If they don’t put in place a full program with procurement and O&M, then the money would be used perhaps to stand up an office and put some interesting ‘thought processes’ together on how to integrate heterogenous networks.” The addition of commercial satcom program line “was a big move but it’s incomplete until the Air Force specifically determines what that money’s purpose is. It’s not clearly defined.”

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