SatCom policies slammed by Inmarsat executive
Concerns focus on whether GSA, DISA can deliver enough service to the warfighter
As the president of military and civilian satellite services provider Inmarsat Government Services Inc. and the former Defense Information Systems Agency SatCom program executive officer, Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch has a unique perspective on both the commercial satellite communications industry and Defense Department satellite needs and requirements.
In Part I of this interview, Cowen-Hirsch talked about the upcoming joint DISA-General Services Administration contract vehicle, the Future ComSatCom Satellite Acquisition and its possible shortcomings.
In this second half of her conversation with Washington Technology contributing editor Sami Lais, Cowen-Hirsch spells out how DOD’s budgeting, planning and execution of the Pentagon's SatCom acquisition policy contrive to shoot the department—and especially the warfighter—in the foot.
Washington Technology: One issue that keeps coming up is that, unlike the Navy and commercial enterprises such as NBC, for example, DISA doesn’t make long-term budget commitments for satellite communications services. DISA SatCom Director Bruce Bennett said the agency can’t legally. And all of that contributes to the trend toward stagnant capacity and growing demand which ultimately, it’s speculated, could leave DOD out in the cold. Is there a solution here?
Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch: It would require one on the budget side; it literally would require an act of Congress. Today in fact, the reality is that the DOD, with the notable exception of the U.S. Navy, does not intentionally fund for commercial SatCom. There is no line item anywhere in the defense budget—again, outside of the Navy—that says commercial SatCom is funded here. And because the funding is done in this way, it is more reactive.
WT: But does DOD really have a choice?
Cowen-Hirsch: The other element associated with the manner in which DOD does business is they have the full legal authority to contract for long term. They’ve done it on a number of occasions, so there’s no legal or statutory impediment to long-term contracting. DOD does do long-term contracts; when and if they have the requirements, they can get funding to support that. It’s not unprecedented. It’s not just in the Navy. It’s just not done universally.
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The argument is that the Navy has more stable requirements — it’s difficult to make changes when the office is on a ship at sea — while DISA has more and smaller users with faster-changing requirements. Can DISA look out five years to foresee requirements?
Cowen-Hirsch: The DOD, in my opinion, has the obligation to evaluate what their base communication requirements are. There’ll always be surge. But there’s a necessity to understand holistically and strategically what your base communication requirements flowing across SatCom will be and to plan for those and budget for those intentionally.
The Navy has done that to a degree, but across the DOD that has not been done. It is a fundamental deficiency in the manner in which the DOD addresses its Com/SatCom requirements. They do not plan strategically, so they do not acquire strategically. And, of course, it is not funded intentionally. Instead, Com/SatCom requirements are paid for by supplemental dollars. This administration has made it very clear that they intend to review supplemental resources over time and roll those requirements into the appropriated budget.
WT: And if that actually happens?
Cowen-Hirsch: We’re approaching what could be the potential perfect storm insofar as there would be no supplemental dollars to acquire the essential Com/SatCom capabilities that the warfighting, peacekeeping and peace-maintaining aid communities require and depend on so heavily.
WT: So where do you see change coming from: DOD or Congress? Will it be as a direct result of funding changes? Or will Congress feel forced to make changes because the DOD bureaucracy isn’t moving fast enough to do it?
Cowen-Hirsch: I think it will need to be externally driven because there are pockets within the DOD where the old adage "if everyone’s in charge, then no one’s in charge" is so very true.
WT: So it’s a leadership vacuum?
Cowen-Hirsch: We have been listening to [Air Force Secretary Michael Donley] talk about where the U.S. Air Force is going in evaluating its role as the executive agent for space and its evolving influence. And you can hear the Army, which is a significant consumer of Com/SatCom bandwidth, express an increased demand.
The Space Posture Review draft version went up to Capitol Hill and because this is such a critical capability, it will require focused attention, direction and execution.
And there is no assistant secretary of Defense for networks information and integration [DOD’s CIO]. [Former Michigan and California CIO] Teri Takai has been nominated, but there is a dearth of leadership right now in the department in terms of policy and direction. StratCom has been relatively silent in the SatCom arena for some time. And this is a critical capability for the warfighter. Truthfully, we recognize that it’s a very contested environment, budgets are constricting and contracting and if there’s a resource allocation, not just on the financial side, although that’s important, but also on communications and making sure it’s available at the right place at the right time to be able to execute the mission.
WT: What do you see ahead for Com/SatCom?
Cowen-Hirsch: I predict that demand will continue to outstrip available capacity. The increased utilization of IP and broadband networks will actually serve the Department of Defense very well because they can use them to really optimize their capabilities. That of course is the principle behind why we established our I4 constellation and the broadband global area network. It’s all IP-based, it optimizes the network, it’s demand assigned, it’s very flexible, very adaptable. And IP networks is where not only the DOD but also civilian government is going.
I see the user community looking more at what can be done across the network for the application more than what a particular transmission pipe looks like.
I see a convergence of capabilities across the MilSatCom and commercial SatCom, fiber and wireless networks so that from an operational standpoint it becomes more transparent to the end user environment.
Over the next five to X number of years, having Schedule 70 and all these various, distinct and unclearly differentiated contracting mechanisms, I’m not so certain that that operational vision I predicted can be well served by a series of contracts that are executed by GSA.