WASHINGTON — The Air Force Space Command in December assumed responsibility for the procurement of commercial satellite communications services for the Department of Defense, a job that previously belonged to the Defense Information Systems Agency.
But just as this reorganization is getting underway, much bigger changes are coming. DoD is moving forward with efforts to establish a Space Force as a new military branch and will submit a proposal to Congress in the coming days.
One of the consequences of creating a Space Force, if Congress authorizes the plan, would be the breakup of Air Force Space Command. The Pentagon’s proposal would disestablish the command, and its people and functions would be transferred to U.S. Space Command and to the Space Force. The procurement of commercial satellite communications services, meanwhile, would be reassigned to the Secretary of the Air Force, according to a draft document reviewed by SpaceNews.
“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,” says the draft of the legislative proposal.
Executives from several satellite communications providers contacted by SpaceNews declined to comment on the potential repercussions of this change.
Congress in the Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act directed DISA to transfer the management of commercial satellite communications procurement to Air Force Space Command.
Satellite communications executives for years had advocated for the transfer of responsibilities to Air Force Space Command. They criticized DISA’s preferred approach of leasing commercial satellite bandwidth under short-term contracts with satellite operators. Air Force Space Command said it would support other methods of acquiring communications for the U.S. military, such as buying broadband services that would be integrated with military satellite networks into a hybrid system.
Air Force Space Command chief Gen. Jay Raymond told lawmakers in March that military users of satellite communications want to be able to “roam” seamlessly among different satellite service providers or constellations.
Industry sources said Air Force Space Command initially did not want the job but once Congress assigned it, it moved to stand up a new office in the Washington, D.C. area led by Clare Grason, who was division chief for satellite communications at DISA. Air Force Space Command decided to not relocate the satellite communications procurement office of 36 civilians and military members and 70 support contractors to Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, to avert the departure of key staff. The office is just now starting to figure out how it will operate under the new management structure. Officials said it will be fully operational by October 2020.
Some experts believe the task of acquiring satellite communications services would be more appropriate for the Secretary of the Air Force because it is not a warfighting activity. “This issue was at the heart of discussions when the House Armed Services Committee first proposed a Space Corps,” one executive said. The Pentagon is now moving to establish U.S. Space Command to take over warfighting responsibilities while the procurement of equipment and services would be handled by the Space Force, under the Department of the Air Force.
Have adequate satellite services is an issue of concern to the Army, which uses 75 percent of all military wideband communications, the executive said, so the Pentagon is right to consider moving this responsibility to the military service (the Space Force) rather than a warfighting command.
Air Force Space Command on Feb. 14 hosted a satellite communications industry conference in Colorado Springs. Executives who attended the event said there was no discussion of any looming changes related to the Space Force reorganization. Air Force Space Command officials provided no specific details on how they might procure satellite communications services in the future, one executive said. “They want to understand our business models before they make decisions.”