U.S. Space Force rolls out plan to change how it buys satcom services

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The “United States Space Force Vision for Satellite Communications” calls for an integrated network of commercial and military satcom services.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force on Feb. 19 unveiled a plan to change how it acquires satellite-based communications for the Defense Department. The essence of the plan is to combine military and commercial satcom systems into a unified network.

The satcom strategy titled, “United States Space Force Vision for Satellite Communications,” was approved by Chief of Space Operations of the U.S. Space Force Gen. John Raymond on Jan. 23.

The issue of how DoD should acquire satcom services has been debated and studied for years. The Air Force Space Command — which was renamed U.S. Space Force on Dec. 20 — was directed by Congress in December 2018 to take over the procurement of commercial satcom and to figure out how to build an “enterprise” architecture of military and private sector satellites. This would make it possible for satcom terminals to roam between networks the way consumer cellphones switch between providers when users travel from one country to another.

But how to achieve that vision still has not been settled. The Space Force will appoint a team of experts to help develop a roadmap to guide future efforts.

“Despite the global, instantaneous reach of our satellite communications systems, which includes both military and commercial capabilities, the current loose federation of satcom systems needs to improve in resiliency, robustness, flexibility and manageability,” said Maj. Gen. Bill Liquori, Space Force director of strategic requirements, architectures and analysis, said in a statement Feb. 19.

The integrated military-commercial enterprise, said Liquori, will “provide warfighters with the ability to transition between their networks and terminals to alternate resources with little or no disruption.”

One of the obstacles to the use of commercial satcom services has been the incompatibility of military terminals. This issue would be solved by upgrading terminals with “flexible modem interfaces,” says the Space Force document.

The Space Force also will develop a plan to supplement and replace the capacity provided today by DoD’s Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) constellation over the next decade when these satellites start going out of service. “We will continue engaging commercial partners to evaluate opportunities that may complement or possibly replace portions of a traditional military satcom purpose-built system,” says the document.

Cybersecurity will be a central requirement in any future network as adversaries deploy more advanced jammers and other electronic weapons. In that vein, the Space Force named its vision of the future “Fighting Satcom.” The 2021 budget request for the Space Force includes $43 million for Fighting Satcom.

The Space Force strategy calls for a centralized management of satcom purchases that currently are done by multiple organizations.

“The practice of multiple authorities (combatant commands, services/agencies and acquisition organizations) buying multiple satcom products and services led to stovepiped satcom systems, vertically integrated within each system, but with virtually no ability for users to receive simultaneous operational benefits from multiple systems due to their disparities,” says the vision document.

To get better pricing from vendors, a portion of commercial satcom will be provided through managed services, the paper says. “In some cases, specific power-bandwidth for special user and legacy terminals will be acquired using multi-year, pooled-resource contracts when possible. Individual single-year leases will be rare and only used when no other options exist.”

The Space Force satcom strategy has been long in the making and highly anticipated, industry consultant Mike Tierney, of the consulting firm Velos, told SpaceNews Feb. 19.

“Industry is encouraged by the overall vision and the role of commercial satcom,” said Tierney. “The industry has long been advocating for a published vision for the enterprise and was consulted as this vision was developed.”

But Tierney noted that this is a strategic vision document and “significant tactical work remains to implement the vision and adjust policies and processes.”

Ken Peterman, president of Viasat’s Government Systems, said the document is a “clear step towards creating an integrated, hybrid network architecture that leverages the best of both private sector and military satcom technology.”

Dave Fields, senior vice president and general manager of Leonardo DRS Global Enterprise Solutions, cautioned that a satcom network that seamlessly brings in multiple providers is easier said than done.

In satellite communications, he said, there are no standards like in cellular service. The idea that one can buy a satcom terminal that works like a cellphone, roaming from network to network sounds appealing but may not be realistic, said Fields. Cellular service providers agree to common standards because they can spread the cost across millions of users. But the financial calculus is different for the satcom industry that sells hardware in much smaller quantities.