GAO warns DOD of 'fragmented' approach to commercial satellites

Air Force DSCS satellite

The Defense Department has become more reliant on commercial satellites to augment its communications capabilities, but the way it goes about acquiring those services is “fragmented and inefficient,” leaving the department without a solid knowledge of the satcom it has and potentially costing it money in lost bulk-purchase opportunities, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

DOD’s policy is to leases its commercial satcom through the Defense Information Systems Agency, but that policy is not always enforced. “[S]ome DOD components independently procure commercial SATCOM to meet their individual needs, rather than relying on DISA,” the report states. In fact, DOD’s “usage report indicates that roughly 32 percent of fixed satellite services are procured outside of DISA.”

GAO said the military’s satellite architecture consists of three segments 1) a protected segment that provides secure, jam resistant communications, 2) a wideband segment that supports Army mobile ground terminals and Navy ships and submarines, and other uses, and 3) a narrowband segment that complements the other segments, with services such as beyond line-of-sight tactical communications. The commercial satcom architecture has two segments—fixed and mobile satellite services—that correspond to the military wideband and narrowband segments, respectively. The commercial sector doesn’t have a counterpart to the protected segment. 

The report noted that DOD has made some positive changes a previous report in 2003, when GAO said that DOD did not even know how much it was spending on commercial bandwidth services or if customer needs were being satisfied. But the lack of enforcement of the DISA-only policy has is leaving the department at least partly in the dark, the report said.

The purchasing of “commercial [satellite services] on the spot market by various DOD components and managed in isolation from one another” has produced limited situational awareness of satellite resources. “This fragmented approach to acquiring commercial satcom places DOD at risk of not leveraging its own buying power through efficiencies, such as bundling acquisitions,” which could save money, the report said.

GAO recommended that, first, DOD enforce the policy to buy commercial services through DISA and conduct a spending analysis to identify procurement inefficiencies and opportunities for improvement. While DOD has conducted useful studies along these lines, GAO said there are still shortcomings that will limit how well the department understands its requirements.

Among the examples GAO provided was the failure to identify a specific mix of military and commercial satcom to meet DOD needs. Also, despite the collection of information for making predictions on future commercial needs, DOD’s database for such information is incomplete. DOD components that buy commercial satellite services outside of DISA don’t always enter their commercial requirements into the database.

As demand for commercial SATCOM grew following 9/11 and subsequent wars abroad, “DOD struggled to define the appropriate mix of military and commercial SATCOM based on capability and cost,” the report said. DOD did, however, outline three conditions under which it would use commercial services: when military bandwidth is unavailable, when user demand outstrips military capability, and when ground terminals will operate only with commercial satellites.

The department has initiated some small-scale approaches, called pathfinders, to address fiscal, operational and policy challenges involved in commercial satcom acquisition, the report notes. There are two types of pathfinders: efforts under DISA aimed at helping DOD understand global commercial requirements and analyze alternatives to commercial leases in the short term, and Air Force pathfinders that are aimed at evaluating longer-term methods for commercial satellite communications acquisitions. 

But GAO noted it will be several years before DOD has enough information from the pathfinders to determine any acquisition changes. “None of the five DISA pathfinder initiatives is expected to be completed until fiscal year 2017 and only one of the Air Force pathfinder initiatives is currently under way—with an expected completion date sometime in fiscal year 2019.” As such, GAO’s third recommendation is to “assess whether further centralization of commercial SATCOM procurement could be beneficial.”

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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