[Via Satellite 11-19-2014] The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is trying to plan for satellite capacity needs beyond the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) constellation but is having trouble gauging the military’s long-term requirements.
“WGS is coming to an end over the next 10 years,” Eron Miller, chief of the services division, comsatcom center at Network Services DISA, said at SATCON last week. “We have to know what’s the next step. We are not going to buy more WGS satellites beyond 10, so what are we going to do next?”
WGS, originally the Wideband Gapfiller System, replaced the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS). Built by Boeing, the first satellite launched in 2007. The U.S. Air Force increased the number of WGS satellites from three to six and eventually to 10, but does not have plans to add to the constellation beyond this number. DOD is now evaluating the role of commercial satellite capacity in preparation for meeting future needs.
According to Miller, DOD spends roughly $1 billion per year on comsatcom. Over the past 10 to 12 years, approximately 70 percent of that spending has been related to wars in the Middle East. When relying on comsatcom, DOD has employed short-term contracts that often frustrate commercial operators who prefer reliable multiyear agreements. DOD is evaluating longer agreements through the pathfinder contracts, but commercial operators are still looking for a clear vision of what the government anticipates needing over the next several years.
“We would love to have long term contracts, but I would put one thing above long-term contracts and that is an architecture,” said Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General.
Sears acknowledged that DOD has “come a long way” in understanding how commercial satellite operators make investments, but said the military remains the biggest uncertainty compared to broadcasters, telcos and other customers. Intelsat General and other providers believe they would be better able to plan for military customers if made privy to DOD’s expected needs. But Miller said that is not directly possible as deciding on WGS was in some ways a gamble by itself.
“We can tell industry our requirements, [but] if we knew our requirements and had our hands around them, it would be even greater,” he said. “With WGS, we looked at a satellite database, we looked at a scenario-based requirement and said ‘if these things happen, here’s what we will need. Based on the right number of ‘ifs,’ to be safe, we will buy this many satellites and we think that will do.’ But that’s really taking a stab in the dark. If we hadn’t gone to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we would be filing reports to Congress about why we bought all these satellites and are not using them.”
Furthermore Miller said multi-year leases are appealing, but they would come with a greater cost to DISA because additional funding would need to be allocated to cover any terminations. DISA would have to fund these contracts through the Working Capital Fund, which provides $500 million for a variety of programs.
“We have Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and all others and, at the end of the year, when I think about budget, I have to list out every dollar for where that $500 million is coming from. That wouldn’t change if I did a multi-year lease; except for all of those multi-year leases, I’d have to have other money now that’s appropriated — that I don’t plan on spending — to cover just in case I have to terminate. Until we can get all of that sorted out, we would love to have multi-year leases, but there has to be some kind of creative way to propose pricing that would minimize that termination liability,” said Miller
Both Sears and SSL Vice President of U.S. Government Business Development Chuck Cynamon noted that increasing demand for mobility services in the commercial sector overlaps with the similar needs in the government. For example, satellites designed to connect aircraft as they switch beams mid-flight could leverage those advances for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVS), which DOD is using to meet the growing demand for Information, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). Likewise, the increase in the number of devices people carry everywhere on the commercial side can correlate to efficiencies in covering troops on the move.
DISA could take advantage of these advances made by the commercial industry, but threatens to stifle productivity by trying to overdesign requirements. Robert Aalseth, chief of the Milsatcom Advanced Concepts Division at the Air Force Space Command’s Space and Missile Systems Center, agreed. If the U.S. government wants to benefit from advances made on the commercial front, it will have to give commercial operators the freedom to innovate.
“If people accept premise that we can’t afford a billion dollars of comsatcom a year that we are buying today, we certainly can’t afford to buy all that comsatcom and afford all the overly bureaucratic government oversight that we have today,” Aalseth said. “There has to be some give there.”