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The evolving role of industry partners in MILSATCOM

In the last few articles on the GovSat Report, we focused on summarizing some of the exciting topics and trends that we heard at a Space and Satellite Communications Morning Briefing sponsored by Defense One. As we’ve discussed previously, MILSATCOM change was one of the most frequently discussed themes of the discussion with the panel quickly establishing that space is becoming a contested environment – more so than ever before.

“We’re working forward on that now. I expect to put an RFP out in the very near future. It actually got tweaked a little bit…it [isn’t] just WGS, but also the DSCS Constellation. We’re going to get both of those run…we’ll be bringing in contractors so that they can relieve the Blue Suiters…” – Robert Tarleton, Jr. (image from Defense One)

Next, the panelists discussed the SATCOM Analysis of Alternatives (AoA), an initiative which will be informed by a series of SATCOM pilot programs and the Air Force’s COMSATCOM Pathfinder effort. The Pilot and Pathfinder efforts are being conducted to analyze the viability and feasibility of new COMSATCOM services and new methods of acquiring COMSATCOM capacity.

Practically all of the panelists at the Defense One event seemed to agree that the end result of this AoA – and the Pathfinder and pilot programs feeding it – will be one of the biggest changes yet; a significantly increased reliance on industry partners in MILSATCOM to help deliver mission-critical communications and capabilities, and to effectively increase mission assurance.

But that’s not the only change that could be on the horizon to the relationship between the federal government and the COMSATCOM industry. A new Request for Proposal (RFP) is expected in the very near future could usher in giant steps towards erasing the line between the military’s satellite constellations and those of the Nation’s industry partners.

Game-changing RFP on the Horizon

The Air Force is preparing to release an contract that will turn over the operations and management of MILSATCOM constellations. Although the timing for this RFP is still TBD, according to Robert Tarleton, Jr, the Director of the MILSATCOM Systems Directorate, Space and Missile Systems Center, Air Force Space Command, “We’re working forward on that now. I expect to put an RFP out in the very near future.”

Originally only intended to include the military’s WGS satellite constellation, there are already tweaks to the RFP happening that would involve industry partners taking control of an even larger part of the military’s satellite infrastructure. As Mr. Tarleton said, “It actually got tweaked a little bit…it [isn’t] just WGS, but also the DSCS Constellation. We’re going to get both of those run…we’ll be bringing in contractors so that they can relieve the Blue Suiters…”

And the line could get blurred even further in the near future, according to Mr. Tarleton, there will be an, “off ramp or an option to eventually move to a contractor facility.” This means that the WGS and DSCS satellite constellations would not only be conducted by industry partners, but be done in a commercial operations center.

This approach is a far cry from the way the military has traditionally approached their space and satellite infrastructure. Traditionally, the military has relied on purpose built satellite constellations that they commission, launch and manage all themselves. This was well illustrated by Dr. David Hardy, the Associate Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force (Space), when he was once quoted saying, “We in the DoD space community like to keep control over our assets.”

So what changed?

Moving towards COMSATCOM Managed Services

There are multiple reasons why the military could be moving in this direction. According to Todd Gossett, the Senior Director of Hosted Payloads at SES Government Solutions (SES GS), they most likely include cost and mission focus:

It’s going to be cost savings, it’s going to be freeing up of the Blue Suiters. But it’s also going to deliver the interoperability… – Winston Beauchamp. (image from Defense One)

“Cost savings is certainly a part of it. The military is always looking for ways to operate more effectively and efficiently for the American taxpayer. COMSATCOM providers can manage these constellations for a fraction of the cost since there are efficiencies of scale. They’re already operating satellite constellations in operation centers – this would simply add to the number of satellites they’re operating. I would also assume that there’s a challenge with mission focus. Having to operate and manage the WGS fleet keeps service men and women from higher-value work.”

Mr. Winston Beauchamp, the Director of the Principal Department of Defense Space Advisor Staff and Deputy Under Secretary (Space) of the U.S. Air Force, claims that there could be more to it than that. According to him, “It’s going to be cost savings, it’s going to be freeing up of the Blue Suiters. But it’s also going to deliver the interoperability…that will be one of the key drivers to the enterprise ground system.”

It’s clear that outsourcing the management and operations of the WGS and DSCS satellite constellations could deliver some significant benefits to the military. But it’s also a change that could prove difficult to a military that has traditionally avoided risk and sought to keep as much control as possible in all phases of the mission and organization.

When asked if he felt is the military could effectively make this transition towards industry partners managing and operating its space infrastructure, Todd Gossett said, “I certainly think it’s possible – and it’s certainly in the military’s best interest if they’re going to make the management and operations of the constellations as efficient as possible.” He continued, “There are large, financially-stable commercial space operators with experience managing large constellations, that have integrated new satellites into their command and control system and are capable of executing effective Information Assurance operations. Finding the right partner with the right experience should take much of the risk out of this transition.”

Although the timing of the RFP remains unknown, the movement towards commercially-operated DSCS and WGS satellite constellations could be inevitable. If it does come to pass, it would certainly mark a new direction for MILSATCOM, and even further blurring of the lines between the military’s space infrastructure and the commercial satellite industry.

Watch the video of the Defense One briefing below:

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