WGS satellites Air Force
WGS satellites. Credit: Boeing

WASHINGTON — Commercial satellite operators aiming to fulfill a greater share of the U.S. Defense Department’s satellite bandwidth needs see the next 18 months as a crucial window for making their case with the customer as it explores its own next-generation systems.

The U.S. Air Force is expected to undertake an analysis of alternatives for wideband satellite capacity that will help determine its way forward on a follow-on to its 10-satellite Wideband Global Satcom system. The first glimpse of that program is expected to come as early as the Air Force’s fiscal year 2018 budget request.

That would leave less than 18 months for commercial satellite operators to spell out what they can offer as an alternative to government-owned satellites like WGS.

Industry officials have long bemoaned the government’s satellite bandwidth purchasing practices as inefficient, making it difficult for commercial operators to prepare for future government needs with cost-effective solutions. They also argue that a single Defense Department entity should be responsible for determining how to meet the military’s bandwidth needs. Currently, that responsibility is divided between the Air Force, which buys and operates satellites, and the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), which procures commercial bandwidth.

“More important than simply having a new model for [commercial satellite communications] acquisition, is the need for an integrated space architecture where commercial is designed in — in this case in the [satellite communications] area, but others as well,” Skot Butler, vice president of Intelsat General Corp. of McLean, Virginia, said in response to questions from SpaceNews. “This can only be accomplished if commercial has a real seat at the table and is permitted to partner with DoD in an unprecedented, long term fashion.”

Despite its traditional role as a hardware buyer, the Air Force is experimenting with new models for buying commercial bandwidth under a program called Pathfinder. The service on Aug. 11 released an updated request for information for the second of these, Pathfinder 2, in which it plans to procure a transponder aboard a commercial satellite before it launches.

Like the first Pathfinder experiment, in which the Air Force purchased the entire capacity of an aging satellite covering Africa, this represents a break from DISA’s longstanding practice of purchasing commercial bandwidth on the relatively high-priced spot market as individual requirements from the military services arise.

The Aug. 11 solicitation contained a new wrinkle that was not in a June 2014 notice on Pathfinder 2: The Air Force plans to leverage its ownership of the prepurchased transponder to gain access to the operator’s other satellites. In other words, it can barter that asset for equivalent capacity aboard another satellite in the constellation.

This approach has a parallel in the WGS program, where U.S. allies have purchased satellites in exchange for proportional access to the entire constellation.

The prepurchased transponder will be used by Air Combat Command and the Department of Homeland Security, according to the solicitation.

But the timing of Pathfinder 2 raises questions about whether its results will factor into decisions on the mix of commercial and military-owned satellites in the Air Force’s communications architecture. The prepurchased commercial transponder is not expected to launch until around 2018, by which time the Air Force presumably will have already made initial decisions on a WGS follow-on.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office said in June that “it may be several years before DOD is able to evaluate the results of its pathfinder efforts.” In a report, the congressional watchdog agency said none of the planned Pathfinder projects is expected to be completed until 2017 at the earliest.

Asked about the Pathfinder request, an official with one commercial satellite operator stressed the need for continuous dialogue with the Defense Department.

“It is operationally critical that the government engages with the industry early and often any time innovative, commercially-enabled satellite solutions are required,” said Tim Deaver, corporate vice president for development at SES government solutions.

SES won the first Pathfinder contract, an $8.2 million deal signed last year. Some have questioned whether that procurement filled an existing military requirement, but others have hailed the experiment as a huge success from a demonstration point of view.

The budget outlook for the Pathfinder 2 experiment, meanwhile, is uncertain. The House version of the defense appropriations bill contains $26 million for the project, but it is not clear when or even whether a 2016 spending bill will be finalized.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.