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Air Force looks to contractors to control constellations – a Q&A with Robert Tarleton

Prior to the holiday season, the Government Satellite Report attended a Defense One-sponsored event, the Space and Satellite Communications Morning Briefing. The briefing featured an impressive panel of government satellite experts and decision-makers. These experts included Winston Beauchamp, the Director of the Principal Department of Defense Space Advisor Staff and Deputy Under Secretary (Space) of the U.S. Air Force, and Robert Tarleton, Jr, the Director of the MILSATCOM Systems Directorate, Space and Missile Systems Center, Air Force Space Command.

What the attendees heard extensively from Mr. Beauchamp and Mr. Tarleton was the need for the military to make its satellite infrastructure more resilient and more efficient. Both individuals also discussed the use of COMSATCOM to assist the military in accomplishing those goals.

Following the event, we had the opportunity to ask Mr. Beauchamp and Mr. Tarleton about the Air Force’s Pathfinder programs and rumblings about a new RFP that would ultimately swing the daily operations of the MILSATCOM satellite constellations, WGS and DSCS, to commercial partners in commercial facilities. This is a change that would seemingly contradict the Air Force’s traditional reticence towards controlling and managing its assets internally.

To learn more about what that RFP would entail, the challenges it may face from military decision makers, and why the time is right to move the daily operations of military satellite constellations to commercial partners, we followed up by asking a few additional questions to Mr. Tarleton. Here is what he had to say:

Robert TarletonGovernment Satellite Report (GSR): What is the timeframe for the WGS RFP? When is this expected to be released to industry partners? Considering the timing of the RFP, when do you think that management of these constellations could, conceivably, transition to an industry partner?

Mr. Tarleton: We are pushing to release a draft RFP in February of 2017. The Air Force will always retain oversight and responsibility for constellation management, this effort will enable the potential use of contractor facilities and personnel to perform the daily telemetry, tracking, and control functions under the direction of the Air Force.

The potential future direction to proceed to a contractor’s facility will be informed by the operational community and a decision by Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) with the timing still in discussion.

GSR: What benefit is the Air Force anticipating from outsourcing the management and control of the WGS (and potentially DSCS) constellations to industry partners? Do you expect that these benefits will deliver enough ROI to justify paying industry partners to manage them?

Mr. Tarleton: This effort is but one component of a much more comprehensive effort implemented by AFSPC to advance our vision of more resilient, efficient, and effective operations to enhance mission impact and repurpose our limited number of Airmen to focus on warfighter effects.

While we will always ensure that our efforts are cost efficient, operational effectiveness and resiliency is not something that lends itself to a simple ROI calculation; however we are confident that we will achieve the necessary resilience improvements in a cost effective manner.

GSR: There is a perception amongst the space community that the Air Force has historically been reticent to do anything that involves losing or handing over control of their space resources. Does this RFP signify a shift or departure away from owning, operating and managing everything internally? If so, do you anticipate this change in attitude and direction to be reflected in other areas of the military’s space and satellite infrastructure?

Mr. Tarleton: Yes, we are moving away from owning everything.  We are evaluating more effective options for acquiring commercial bandwidth with the Pathfinder efforts. In addition, the DoD is assessing the future architecture for providing tactical communication support in the Wideband AoA.

GSR: What concerns do senior Air Force decision makers have about making this move? Do you feel that the Air Force – with its current culture – is ready and willing to take a step like this?

Mr. Tarleton: Yes. The direction to make this change is from the AFSPC Commander, representing the highest levels of support for this change to achieve greater resilience and operational effectiveness.

GSR: What do industry partners need to exhibit to prove to the Air Force that they’re capable of handling these constellations? What will the Air Force be looking for in an industry partner to make this transition effective and easier?

Mr. Tarleton: It is recognized that there are existing service providers with exemplary performance records of providing satellite telemetry, tracking, and control capabilities to numerous customers.

We want to leverage that experience and expertise for not only safely operating satellites, but also meeting DoD unique requirements for secure and responsive operations.

To read the original articles from the Defense One Space and Satellite Communications Morning Briefing, click the following links: 

 

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