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.
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.
Those airmen could then focus more on the battle management aspect of WGS, or be put toward supporting other space programs.
"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.
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.
"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]."
"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]."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.