WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department is moving forward with what Pentagon insiders and corporate executives hope will be a solution to a crunch on the bandwidth needed to operate UAVs.
Speaking to a group of satellite company executives March 18, Frank Kendall, defense undersecretary for acquisition, said he is setting a 90-day window for commentary before he and Chief Information Officer Teri Takai begin to develop policy.
“We’re teaming with [the] CIO to come up with a business framework for a smarter way to buy commercial satellite communications,” Charles Beames, principal director for space and intelligence at the DoD office of acquisition, technology and logistics, told Defense News the next day. “[Kendall] gave us 90 days to come back with the answer.
“It’s a big challenge,” Beames added. “It’s an important thing that has to be taken on, and we have an undersecretary that’s excited about doing it.”
Beames was speaking after moderating a panel on UAV bandwidth issues as part of the SATELLITE 2013 Conference and Exhibition in Washington.
In his opening comments on the panel, he said DoD is “getting lots of feedback from industry. We have teams forming up that are going to look at the various aspects of that, and we have 90 days to come back with … how this is going to work.
“What we ultimately want to do is get to a long-term vision, a more seamless architecture in terms of how we provision this,” Beames said in his comments. The goal is to ensure “we have a viable plan for the surge activities. We don’t know what they are, but we know they’ll happen.”
Beames expects the result to be a mix of approaches that best fit the mission at hand. “There will be aspects of this where we buy, there will be aspects of this where we long-term lease, there will be aspects of this where we spot lease,” he said.
With the growing use of UAVs, DoD has frequently found itself short on the bandwidth needed for missions.
Military satellites such as the Defense Satellite Communications System and Milstar do not have the capacity to handle the massive growth of UAV use. In those situations, they buy bandwidth from commercial satellite providers. As much as 90 percent of UAV bandwidth being used in Iraq and Afghanistan was being purchased from commercial satellite companies, according to industry figures.
It’s an expensive process, and one industry executives have been trying to change for years. Rather than pay premiums case by case, they argue, the government should establish a baseline for required UAV bandwidth and enter long-term agreements for the use. It would lower the cost for taxpayers while providing a consistent source of revenue for the providers.
The “pivot” to the Pacific, along with heavier use of UAVs in Africa, is likely to exacerbate the bandwidth crunch. There was significant satellite coverage over the Middle East when the military began using large numbers of UAVs in the region; the same is not true for large chunks of Africa or the Pacific Ocean, where drones would likely be operating. Having a baseline of bandwidth available in those regions could be crucial for future UAV operations.
Philip Harlow, president and COO of commercial satellite operator XTAR, said the Pentagon knows “they need to be smarter, they have some recommendations, and how do they move it to the next step.”
Harlow was one of five industry executives who penned a letter this year to Kendall in response to the Better Buying Power 2.0 initiative. The letter included seven suggestions for how the Pentagon and commercial satellite operators could work together to drive down costs.
In addition to a more permanent bandwidth baseline, the letter called for an increase in the use of hosted payloads — modules attached to commercial satellites that operate independently of the main system — and the creation of a single office to handle military and commercial satellite operations. Both of those things were addressed by Beames’ panel during the conference as key issues that need to be sorted out.
The good news, as Harlow sees it, is that the Pentagon has reacted positively to the letter, with Kendall’s plan for a 90-day period opening dialogue on the issue. And the budget situation may have actually accelerated DoD’s interest in finding a permanent architecture with its commercial partners.
“Without sequestration, I think it may have moved more slowly,” Harlow said. “In the last 10 years, this is the first time DoD has had to ask for more money than they’re probably going to get. Up to now, it’s ‘you’re at war; let’s write a check.’ I think budget pressures are making it move a little faster.”
Although pleased with Kendall’s plan, Harlow warns that the Pentagon reacts “very cautiously” when it feels pressure to act quickly. “It’s a little bit of a double-edged sword,” he said. “We’d like them to move faster, but we don’t want them to move so fast that they feel totally uncomfortable.”