March 18, 2013
More than a decade of war and increasing military demand—as well as capacity—for satellite communications still have not driven the Pentagon and commercial industry to craft a consistent and strategic framework for purchasing commercial services.
The Pentagon spends nearly $1 billion annually on commercial satellite communications for such operations as command and control of unmanned air systems (UAS), like the Predator and Reaper fleets, and shuttling their massive full-motion imagery files around the world. Despite the dramatic growth of these types of operations for more than a decade—beginning just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks—the Pentagon is still buying satellite communication services on the spot market, the most expensive and least efficient way to do so.
And the demand is not short-term. Even with four Boeing-made Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellites in orbit and two more planned for launch, the Pentagon does not see demand for commercial satellite communications being satisfied. Each WGS provides 10 times the bandwidth offered by the entire U.S. Air Force legacy Defense Satellite Communication Systems (DSCS) constellation.
WGS is now supporting 94% of the Pentagon's wideband requirements. “The launch and deployment plan for WGS milsatcom services will not keep up with the expected demand and will require use of commercial satcom to meet our needs,” says David Madden, incoming executive director of the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.
Demand in Iraq and Afghanistan is and will continue to drop off as the U.S. reduces force presence there. But the White House's push to focus the military on the vast Pacific region and continue with counterterrorism operations in and around Africa heralds a need in these areas. As always, the military is posturing to provide organic communications—constellations owned and operated by the Pentagon—in these regions. But they are already forecast to reach capacity soon, so some commercial capacity will be needed to sustain peacetime operations. Even more critical, however, is how the Pentagon can “surge” and have commercial services at the ready in the event of a major operation or war.
Today, commercial services provide about 40% of the Defense Department's communications; that is expected to increase to 68% with the focus on Asia, as the U.S. Navy puts more resources in patrolling and protecting sea lanes of transit and increased activity on anti-drug operations, according to a Jan. 24 Defense Business Board report on making the most of commercial satcom services.
Commercial operators are outspokenly seeking more permanent and regular deals with the Pentagon, which has consistently purchased these services on an annual basis. The Defense Department is considering a variety of options, none of them new, and although this could turn into another unproductive exercise, a growing imperative for Pentagon efficiency may allow it to finally overcome hurdles to achieving more long-term and cost-effective deals.
Such concepts could find their way into the fiscal 2015 budget process, says Rich McKinney, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space. One Air Force official suggests there are also hybrid approaches, such as proposing a less expensive lease option in the long term, as a compromise to Congress, while continuing smaller spot buys on an annual basis as well.