U.S. Air Force Assumes Role in DISA Satellite-lease Initiative

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SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) has joined forces with the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center to share oversight of a Defense Department program to lease a commercial communications satellite to serve U.S. forces in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

The program, Assured Satcom Services in Single Theater, or ASSIST, is designed to save money by acquiring communications services through a long-term lease of capacity on a single spacecraft instead of buying services piecemeal using short-term contracts awarded to multiple service providers.

On Aug. 4, DISA received approval from Teri Takai, the Pentagon’s chief information officer, to proceed with the ASSIST program, which includes plans to award a contract in the spring of 2012 for access to a Ku- and Ka-band satellite serving U.S. Central Command starting in the summer of 2014, according to Bruce Bennett, DISA’s program executive for communications.

Due in part to U.S. lawmakers’ concerns that DISA officials lacked the expertise to manage a 15-year lease of a full satellite, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center has been invited to play a major role in the program, sharing responsibility equally with DISA, government and industry officials said. Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base is the service’s primary procurement shop for space and missile hardware.

In May, the House passed a 2012 defense authorization bill that would cut $416 million of the Pentagon’s $500.9 million ASSIST request and apply those funds to the Wideband Global Satcom program, under which the Air Force buys and operates its satellites. The House bill also included language prohibiting DISA and the Air Force from obligating more than 20 percent of their funding available for commercial satellite services in 2012 “until the Secretary of Defense provides an independent assessment of the acquisition strategy.”

In June, the Senate Armed Services Committee issued a report expressing support for the ASSIST program but said that before DISA commits to leasing a full satellite for a single theater of operations, agency officials should analyze alternatives that include purchasing services on multiple satellites through multiyear contracts “to ensure lower cost and increased flexibility.”

Some of the concerns expressed by lawmakers about the ASSIST program are likely to be eased by the involvement of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center with its vast experience in buying satellites, a Defense Department official said. “Congress wasn’t necessarily convinced that ASSIST was a great idea,” the official said. “It wasn’t as well vetted and coordinated as many other initiatives.” In addition, some lawmakers and Air Force officials “don’t want something that looks more like a procurement than a lease handled by people who do not have extensive experience in procuring spacecraft,” the official added.

He said the coordination between DISA and the Air Force could benefit the ASSIST program. “Maybe the two agencies can figure out how to leverage their respective strengths to work effectively with industry,” the official said.

Bennett did not comment on the impetus for the Air Force’s expanded role in the ASSIST program but said in a Sept. 1 emailed response to questions that as the Defense Department’s “premier provider of satellite hardware, launch and operations,” the Space and Missile Systems Center’s core competencies complement those of DISA, the Defense Department’s “premier network provider and commercial space provider.”

Industry officials praised the Pentagon for even contemplating the idea of signing up for a long-term lease of a commercial communications satellite. Central Command, the military’s largest consumer of satellite bandwidth, uses capacity on more than 20 commercial satellites, typically through one-year leases with options to extend the contracts, according to the ASSIST request for information.

In 2009, the Defense Department spent more than $895.6 million to provide fixed and mobile communications services to the military via satellite. Of that total, $168 million was spent to provide service in Southwest Asia, U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility, which includes 20 nations, according to DISA officials.

In an austere budget environment, the military will have to look at ways to acquire the capability it needs in a more cost-effective manner, said Tom Foust, regional vice president for global network solutions at Intelsat General Corp. of Bethesda, Md. “We have to commend the government for considering something like ASSIST,” he said.

But other industry officials expressed doubts that the ASSIST program will succeed as originally conceived. Although defined as a government effort to acquire commercial satellite capacity, ASSIST is not structured like a commercial program, an industry official said. Both the timeline and specific goals outlined in ASSIST program documents, such as obtaining Ku- and Ka-band service on a single spacecraft, may be challenging for companies.

Another industry official said the Air Force’s expanded role in the ASSIST program might undermine the commercial nature of the project. The Defense Department official said, however, that the Air Force will support the commercial effort because officials “would like to demonstrate that in the satellite communications arena, they can do things more agilely and responsibly than they have in the past 20 years.”

Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center officials declined to comment on the ASSIST program and referred questions to DISA.