DoD wants cheaper, faster satellite capabilities

Wednesday - 11/9/2011, 5:20am EST

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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As the military continues to shift to a net-centric view of warfare operations around the world, it calls for ever-more bandwidth from satellite capabilities. But Defense Department leaders are worried that their current approach to space acquisition takes far too long, and costs far too much to keep up with that demand.

The Pentagon is wrestling with how to develop the satellite communications capabilities it knows it will need in ever increasing quantity, how to deliver new capabilities quickly and how to do it at a time when budgets are declining.

The current approach isn't working, said Gil Klinger, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for space and intelligence.

"We have to recognize that our programs are too expensive and there are too many of them in the pipeline," he said. "That's not a reflection of the value they provide. If we could afford it, I'd buy 20 of them. That's not the issue. But that's not the environment in which we're working."

Gil Klinger, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for space and intelligence. (Photo: Defense.gov)

DoD's last effort to build a high bandwidth satellite constellation, the Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT) spent several years in development before officials cancelled it in 2009 for budget reasons.

That was before the Pentagon developed its first ever comprehensive strategy for space, and DoD leaders on a panel at the MILCOM conference in Baltimore said TSAT also turned out to be misaligned with the objectives laid out in the inaugural 2010 space strategy.

There's no current plan for a similar DoD-owned-and-operated constellation of satellites, and the Pentagon is rethinking how it will deliver SATCOM capabilities around the world. The outcome likely will be a mix of both government-owned and commercial satellite services. Whatever that mix is, a second struggle is how to pay for it.

Good news, bad news

As far as assuring funding for satellite-based military communications, Klinger said the good news is the military and intelligence community rely on satellite communications for almost everything they do. But that's also the bad news.

"You are unambiguously the dial tone for national security. That also means you're taken for granted," he said. "When I pick up the handset of a landline, I don't pay any attention to whether the dial tone is there. The only time I pay attention is when it's not there."

To get to the objective of high bandwidth satellite capability that will keep up with the military's appetite for data transmission around the world, the Pentagon likely will lean on commercial satellite capabilities, to a large extent.

Doug Loverro, director of the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center. (Photo: AF.mil)

It's already been doing so to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Doug Loverro, director of the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center, said it hasn't been doing it cost effectively. The military has been buying commercial capacity on an as-needed basis, on the spot market.

"The innovation in commercial SATCOM is not in the service," he said. "It's in the deal we will make with industry. And the business deal is where we will need to concentrate our neurons to try to figure out how to provide better SATCOM service."

There are other options besides DoD owning and operating its own satellites or buying airtime from commercial providers. The Pentagon also is exploring hosting communications payloads on commercial satellites that are already going to space for other purposes.

Buying SATCOM differently

But all those options implicate the way the DoD space community interacts with the space industry. And the traditional military acquisition process for large systems isn't going to work anymore, Loverro said.

"That's not to say we're going to throw out the rules. The rules protect us from buying things we don't need. It's our execution of the rules that's the problem," he said. "We don't need to create a business deal where you must buy a satellite that takes 10 years to build. We can just as easily create a business deal where we have payloads on the shelf and hosting on satellites. That may be a billion dollar business deal over the next 10 years, but it still rapidly inserts new technology every time a payload goes up."

Loverro said the military is going to have to change the way it thinks about what it buys: taking the focus off of building spacecraft, and putting it onto delivering capability. He said there's a good analogy in the movie industry.

"We used to get movies by going and getting a videotape from Blockbuster," he said. "I would contend that if we hadn't changed the way we thought about movies, that company would still be solvent. It's not. We can't be the Blockbuster of tomorrow, buying satellites that take 10 years to develop. We have to think about buying new things in new ways, and hopefully keep up with the expectation that the warfighter rightly has."

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