Philip Harlow

DOD's commercial satcom strategy needs adjustment

The Defense Department spends $500 million a year on commercial satellite communications to support operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Defense Information Systems Agency has proposed a completely new approach to commercial buying practices by creating the Assured SATCOM Services in Single Theater program. Through ASSIST, DISA hopes to cut its commercial bandwidth acquisition costs dramatically through the $440 million, 15-year lease of a single commercial satellite that can be relocated to new orbital positions as requirements dictate. DISA expects this innovative long-term lease to provide it with approximately three-quarters of the Central Command’s satellite capacity through an efficient, economic and dedicated source.


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However, this new approach raises an important question: Will a one-size-fits-all approach limit DOD’s access to global satellite capacity where and when the warfighter needs it?

Commercial satellite communications capabilities have become a critical part of DOD’s communications architecture. The commercial satellite sector has stepped up to support missions across the Middle East and Southwest Asia despite the lack of long-term contract commitments by DOD. Based on this relationship, the department relies on commercial satellite communications for more than 90 percent of its overall satellite communications capabilities in those theaters of operations.

Users in Afghanistan demand and expect the same kind of broadband service available in the United States, said Bruce Bennett, director of satellite communications, teleport and services at DISA. Bennett said he believes the only way to achieve that goal is with satellite communications. DISA could use military satellite services from two low-bandwidth Defense Satellite Communications System satellites and its high-capacity Wideband Global Satcom satellites in orbit. However, that capacity can barely meet the current — let alone the anticipated — demands of U.S. warfighters overseas.

Short-term leases of commercial satellite capacity are costly. That is why DISA is exploring the long-term lease option with commercial operators. According to DISA, the Central Command uses Ku-band capacity on 20 different commercial satellites in the region. The agency estimates that what it calls its aggregate sustained demand is more than 5 GHz of bandwidth permitting links with more than 1,200 terminals. Most of this capacity is purchased in small segments for one year.

“Buying commercial bandwidth on the spot market is the most inefficient way,” Air Force Gen. John Hyten, director of space programs at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, said at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo. “We need long-term agreements to assure supply,” he added.

DISA has taken a fresh look at the available bandwidth solutions set and should be congratulated for thinking outside the box in creating the ASSIST program. However, as formulated, ASSIST defines a one-size-fits-all approach. This points DOD toward the same mindset that historically has permeated most major military satcom programs. DISA also needs to consider solutions that can fulfill the requirements more comprehensively and potentially more cost effectively. By changing its acquisition approach, DOD can gain benefits far beyond cost savings. Let industry do what it does best; task the commercial satellite industry to respond with innovative solutions to user requirements.

The talk of creative alternatives to ASSIST abounds. Some interested parties have promoted the concept of guaranteed portability across a global fleet or among a combination of fleets. Others have unofficially proposed a new global hosted payload solution, leveraging commercial assets to provide dedicated bandwidth wherever and whenever it is needed. Still more ideas are coming to the fore. With the minimum, long-term commitment DOD has signaled it is ready to make, these solutions or a combination of them might well prove equally as viable as ASSIST at an even lower cost to the government, with greater reach and at much lower risk.

By conducting an open evaluation of bandwidth procurement vehicles, including a comparison of the ASSIST program with other options conceived by the commercial industry, DOD can ensure that it receives the superior solution for its money. Kudos to DISA for its effort to do business differently. With a slightly different approach, it might just pull off a grand success on behalf of the warfighter — and the taxpayers.

About the Author

Philip Harlow is president and chief operating officer of XTAR.

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