Editor's Note: The spelling of Rick Lober's name was corrected.
WASHINGTON — For years, commercial space providers have pushed the Pentagon for a bigger piece of the military space pie. If recent comments from top USAF officials are an indication, they may finally get their chance.
Commercial providers already handle significant chunks of the bandwidth requirements for the Air Force, particularly its fleet of unmanned systems. But, they argue, moving more work onto their platforms would allow the service to save money while also increasing its security in space by disaggregating crucial assets from big, expensive systems to many smaller, cheaper ones.
In a March interview, service secretary Deborah Lee James indicated to Defense News she was intrigued by the possibility of using more commercial providers to drive resiliency in the space architecture.
"There is certainly a commercial role in the overall resilience, in the overall strategy going forward as we continue to protect our assets," she said.
Asked whether she expected to see the role of commercial providers to expand in the future, James said, "I would hope so. Again, we have to look into that carefully and review all of the parameters, but I believe that could be the case."
Comments like James' are welcome news to commercial providers, but the industry has gotten their its hopes up in the past only to have them crushed under the gears of bureaucracy. However, there are some signs this may be for real.
The service has begun inviting in some commercial satcom representatives into war-gaming sessions in what represents — a major opening from the services. Among those companies taking part is Intselsat General, which provides bandwidth for key assets like UAVs.
Mark Daniels, vice president of Engineering and Operations for Intelsat General, said the commercial sector represented itself well in those war-gaming efforts.
"One of the things that played well as a scenario in the last war game was the use of commercial assets, commercial satellite and particularly the ground piece of that, in multiband terminals," he said, adding that "commercial satellites as part of a distributed architecture was important in that war game."
And a major test case for how commercial can increase its share of the military space market may come soon in the form of the service's Wideband Global Satellite (WGS), which provides bandwidth for command and control, ISR and battle-management needs.
Dave Madden, director of the Military Satellite Communications Systems Directorate at the Space and Missile Systems Center, said March 12 that he's hopeful he hopes that "2016 is going to be the year we're finally able to take command and control of WGS and hand it over to the commercial sector."
The reason for that move would be to free up Air Force service members from the day-to-day tracking and maintenance of a satellite network, which Madden said could be handled with less manpower by a private company.
"That's traditionally a job the service providers do, and we use a squadron to do it. In most cases, the commercial guys are doing it with three to four people," Madden explained said. "For the money we're paying to sustain the WGS constellation, we can give it to a service provider to fly it, and sustain it, and then we can free up that squadron [for other missions] and get us out of the basic service provider capability."
Those airmen could then focus more on the battle management aspect of WGS, or be put toward supporting other space programs.
James highlighted Madden's WGS idea as one area where she could see commercial taking a bigger hand in.
"I'm very interested in that concept as well, to the extent that we can use commercial partners," James said. "In the case of that particular asset, it would free up a unit of military personnel who are currently operating that satellite, so I think that could be a very good approach. Of course, we'll have to cost it out and see what the other ramifications are but I'm very interested in that."
Rick Lober, vice president and general manager of the Defense & Intelligence Systems Division at commercial firm Hughes, said the commercial world is well-versed in the kind of plan being discussed for WGS, and could see a way for the bandwidth allocation to be parceled out to firms.
"We do that all the time. We're running a million users on 50 satellites around the world," he said in a March 18 interview. "All it would really take [is] just the frequency coordination and where the bandwidth is being used."
The Pentagon, Lober added, would still have control of "who has what, who is using what, so they would act like a satellite provider and allocate that bandwidth out to managed service providers. That would really be the next step after allowing commercial industry to control the satellite."
In some ways, WGS is uniquely perfect to be the test case for the Air Force, due to its international nature.
Lober points out that the foreign countries are buying a percentage of the bandwidth on the constellation. Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and New Zealand joined to help fund one of the satellites. Meanwhile, Australia has fully funded the sixth satellite in the constellation.
"It's a very similar concept, and they're already starting to do it," Lober said. And while international partners have a say over their portion of the bandwidth, he sees no real roadblocks to commercial handling those international portions as well.
The WGS setup is unique for now, but James would like to see more international buy-in of US Air Force space programs overall.
"I would love to grow that formula," she said of the WGS model. "That has been very successful for us, so we'd love to see that approach grow. We're on the hunt for [other programs]."
Madden indicated that iIf the WGS switch can be done successfully, Madden said, it paves the way for similar moves for other Air Force systems in the future. He highlighted GPS as one area that could see a similar shift.
"Why can't command and control of the GPS be a service? Let the blue-suiters work on the [navigation] piece, the mission-planning piece, and hand the day-to-day operations over," Madden said. "It's much more efficient and effective than training crews for a couple years, they just become proficient, and then [they leave]."