Commercial Help: The US military services — including the Air Force, which flies the Global Hawk UAV — are increasing their dependence on commercial firms to supply satellite bandwidth for ISR requirements. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — One year ago, top Pentagon officials pledged to find a new way to work with the commercial satellite industry. And it was welcome news.
Yet despite the backing of Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top acquisitions official, nothing has changed. Indeed, a study that Kendall promised industry during last year’s SATELLITE 2013 Conference in Washington DC has yet to materialize, leaving industry leaders frustrated and confused over the past year.
However, there may be some good news on the horizon. A Pentagon spokesman said there has been movement on the study, and that Chief Information Officer Teri Takai would address the report at a dinner during this week’s SATELLITE conference.
“The study team has compiled its observations, developed actionable findings and recommendations in a final report, which is currently being coordinated,” the spokesman said. The report will recommend a phased plan with short, mid and long-term goals, as well as providing clarity on which organizations should be responsible for specific activities.
But don’t expect the report to become public. “The report is For Official Use Only (FOUO), so it is not for public release,” the spokesman said
As the use of high-definition video and persistent ISR platforms has expanded, the Pentagon has found its military bandwidth overwhelmed. DoD then turns to commercial providers, something that has become more frequent. That was especially true in Iraq and Afghanistan, where industry figures estimate as much as 90 percent of UAV bandwidth was provided by commercial suppliers.
That bandwidth crunch could become worse. There was significant satellite coverage over the Middle East before operations in Afghanistan and Iraq began, but the same is not true for the Pacific or parts of Africa, where ISR requirements are expected to grow.
Industry executives argue that instead of buying bandwidth on a case-by-case situation, the Pentagon should establish a baseline for required UAV bandwidth and entering long-term agreements for their use. That could conceivably lower the cost for taxpayers while providing a consistent source of revenue for the providers, a win-win.
The Air Force is aware of its reliance on commercial providers, according to the head of the service’s ISR branch.
“It’s fair to say that we do rely extensively on commercial industry for a lot of our information requirements, just because the amount of infrastructure the industry has put in place,” said Maj. Gen. John Shanahan. “It’s very synergistic to have these great relationships between commercial industry and vice versa. I think we take advantage of each others’ technological developments.”
Congress, too, has expressed support for the commercial satellite industry. The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act directed the Pentagon to establish a strategy to “enable the multi-year procurement of commercial satellite services” while also requiring a briefing on the issue following the submission of the 2015 budget request.
So with support for a new way of doing business fromindustry, Congress and top Pentagon leaders all lined up to support a new way of doing business, why was the report delayed? According to the spokesman, the need to collect a wide variety of data slowed the report down.
In the absence of the report, advocates for commercial satcom have become more proactive in recent months, most notably with a Jan. 29 meeting at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., headquarters of US Transportation Command (TRANSCOM).
The goal of the meeting was to find out whether TRANSCOM’s Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF),a network of commercial aircraft that the Pentagon can call upon when a surge in cargo capabilities is needed, could provide a basis for how DoD works with its commercial satcom providers.
“It’s clear not all of the elements will translate one-for-one into the satellite world, but a large number of the elements, with modest modifications, could be very applicable,” said Philip Harlow, president and chief operating officer of XTAR. “If we all sit down and work together we can find a way to apply a large part of the CRAF model.”
So what would transition well? Harlow said the “most effective single step towards being smarter” on purchasing commercial bandwidth would be to set up a single, clear mission manager who coordinates the purchasing, followed by giving that office the budget authority to purchased when needed.
“They have the money. They have working capital fund and a budget,” Harlow said of the TRANSCOM setup. “And they have the contracting authority to use that money.”
A list of attendees, provided by a spokeswoman for TRANSCOM, underscores why industry feels the need for a single mission manager. In addition to industry representatives, individuals from the Defense Information Systems Agency, Air Force Space Command’s Space and Missile Systems Center, Strategic Command and CIO’s office attended either by teleconference or in person.
Harlow described the meeting as productive and praised TRANSCOM for its willingness to share information, but cautioned about hesitancy on the part of Pentagon offices that may be unwilling to cede power as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has made downsizing a priority.
“What I sensed, more than pushback, was hesitation,” Harlow said. “They generally seemed to be pointing out where hurdles might be rather than talking about ways to get around the hurdles.