COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Pentagon has started examining its future wideband satellite needs, but for it to get the most out of the commercial sector, it will need to make some radical changes, a top Inmarsat executive told Defense News.
The services currently rely on the Defense Information Systems Agency to purchase satellite communications services on an "as-needed" basis from commercial companies, while also drawing from military-specific platforms like the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) system.
But Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, Inmarsat's senior vice president of government strategy and policy, believes the military should shift the preponderance of its wideband communications needs to commercial industry, using military satellites only in specialized situations, such as for highly classified information or mission-critical capabilities during a fight with an advanced adversary.
"Rather than have the mindset that it is milsatcom first and commercial on an as-needed basis, put your core missions, your core capabilities that are known, consistent and essential right there on the backbone of commercial," she said in a March 31 interview ahead of Space Symposium.
"Then use your military-owned and operated capabilities for very specific, targeted, surge or mission-unique requirements. That's a very significant shift in perspective."
She added that the Defense Department should also think about moving away from the large government-owned satellites to other constructs for managing military-specific capabilities.
"It can be U.S. payloads on commercial satellite. It can be international allied coalition capabilities," Cowen-Hirsch said.
Inmarsat is one of the companies providing guidance to the Defense Department as it conducts a Wideband Communications Services (WCS) Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) that will explore state of the art technologies and alternative acquisition methods for wideband satcom.
The WCS AOA officially started in December, and Inmarsat executives have participated in a number of discussions with the officials leading the study. The company also hopes to take part in a commercial satcom pilot program that will help to inform the AOA effort, and is awaiting the department’s downselect decision, Cowen Hirsch said.
Much of the industry feedback given during the AOA process will likely reflect longstanding complaints about the way satcom services are acquired. Because contracts are predominantly awarded on a yearly basis with wartime funds from the Overseas Contingency Operations account, it is difficult for industry to predict demand or to guide investment dollars toward capabilities that could benefit military customers.
"With Inmarsat being a very strong company, we can weather those troop drawdowns or buildups because we have such strong commercial business," but acquisition processes as a whole continue to be "very fractured," Cowen-Hirsch said.
During a briefing with reporters in March, Norman Yarbrough, a space adviser at the Pentagon’s acquisition office, said the AOA will explore different satcom ownership models, including "whether industry would completely own the process and we would just accept the terminals and incorporate them into our weapons systems, to the other end of the spectrum — like what we have with WGS today — where we basically own all of the different organizations within the department."
It would take a serious cultural shift to get the military to adopt a wideband satcom framework where industry would own the bulk of the constellation and its management, Cowen-Hirsch acknowledged. But leadership in the Pentagon and Capitol Hill are beginning to understand that the status quo will not continue to meet demands into the future, she said.
"Commercial industry is so integral to operations already, and innovation is coming down regularly," she said. "I believe that perfect tipping forward to have that integrated architecture come forward and have very substantial changes."