DOD ponders next steps to acquiring new communications satellites

New space policy helps define post Cold War orbital environment

The U.S. military relies heavily on satellites, and that makes the military space segment a tempting target for potential aggressors. This situation, plus the problems of acquiring more satellites in lean fiscal times, were discussed by a panel of experts at the MILCOM 2011 conference in Baltimore, Md., on Nov. 8.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Jay Santee, principal director of the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, said a new strategy was necessary because previous space policy had been written during the Cold War, when few nations operated in space. Now, with many nations involved in orbital space, the potential for conflict and the need for coordination and cooperation is very important, he said.

He noted that the Defense Department has rented capacity on commercial satellites for many years to provide forces with additional bandwidth. Tighter budgets will increase this trend as the military distributes its communications needs across civilian and allied coalition space platforms. DOD has launched a series of studies to determine the best mix of satellite assets to support government operations, he said.

But despite tightening budgets, DOD is in the middle of an unprecedented campaign to recapitalize its satellite communications assets, said Gil Klinger, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space and intelligence in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. He said maintaining a healthy space industrial complex is vital in providing effective satellite communications.

The government must think differently about how it acquires satellite systems, and one way is to take extraneous costs out of satellite programs, Klinger said. However, he told the industry audience that making programs more efficient doesn't mean there will be less money for new spacecraft. “We want to buy more of what you do, not less,” he said.

But no matter the outcome of the budget battles in Congress, satellite communications will remain critical to the warfighter, said Douglas Loverro, executive director of Air Force Space Command’s Space and Missile Center. In addition to costs for acquisition, the government must think about what is required to both provide and defend space based communications, he said. The government and industry must also work out new ways to develop satellite communications programs, either through innovative business deals or through cost saving options such as hosting military payloads on commercial spacecraft, Loverro said.

About the Author

Henry Kenyon is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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