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Exploring why the Military Eschews a Cost Saving Satellite Solution

Photo (above): Hosted Payload Alliance Chair, Nicole Robinson, moderates a panel consisting of NASA’s Dave Beals, SES GS CEO, Pete Hoene and Intelsat General’s Kay Sears, discussing whether hosted payloads are “one-offs” or key components in the future of architecture.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the annual Hosted Payload and Smallsat Summit at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. This annual event is organized by the same group that sponsors the annual SATELLITE Conference, and brings together commercial thought leaders, government decision makers and satellite equipment manufacturers to specifically discuss the technologies and solutions making it cheaper, faster and easier to get into space – hosted payloads and small satellites.

With a large contingent of industry representatives, speakers at the Summit often felt like they were simply preaching to the choir. There was little need to discuss the many benefits of hosted payloads to a group that already understands the potential for cost savings, increased efficiency and greater expediency that comes from, “hitching a ride to space.” However, there were some very interesting discussions about what, exactly, constitutes a successful hosted payload, and why the military has been so slow to embrace them. There were also some incredible examples of the different hosted payload programs being implemented across the government today.

Although it was interesting to hear what the industry thought constituted a successful hosted payload, it was good to hear the opinion of federal government decision makers as to what they believe makes a hosted payload program successful or not. One opinion was provided by Michael Schlacter, the Deputy Director of the Space Systems Program Office at the Missile Defense Agency, and the leader of the Space Based Kill Assessment (SKA) hosted payload program. Schlacter appeared on a panel entitled, “Defining a Successful Hosted Payload.” According to him, that definition involves two things – the hosted payload’s schedule performance and how it meets owner/operator, “do no harm” requirements.

SES-14Unfortunately, the MDA was pretty lonely when it came to military organizations speaking about their effective hosted payload programs. Not because programs haven’t been effective, but mostly due to the fact that these programs are few and far between. An overarching theme at this year’s Summit was the dearth of military hosted payload programs and ways in which to remedy it. In fact, an entire panel, entitled, “How to get more military end-users on military hosted payloads,” wrapped up this year’s program.

There were multiple valid reasons and opinions as to why the military continues to eschew hosted payloads. Unfortunately, many of these seemed to be based on fear, a lack of education and a general difference in how the military and private industry operates.

During the course of the Summit, I repeatedly heard that many of the military’s concerns about hosted payloads are based on a loss of control and ownership. And – although it’s cheaper, faster and more efficient to utilize hosted payloads on commercial satellites –unfounded concerns about information assurance, security and reliability keep the military from moving in this more cost-effective direction.

Leaders from both industry and government would dispel many of these concerns during the Summit’s panel discussions.

Regarding reliability of commercial satellites, Dave Beals, the TEMPO Project Manager at NASA, was quoted as saying, “…[the commercial satellite industry is] building birds to make money. And they’re going to be highly reliable. This is going to work. [COMSATCOM providers are] not going to put anything on [their] spacecraft that is going to fall off and interfere…”

To dispel concerns about information assurance and security, Tim Deaver, the Corporate VP of Development at SES GS, claimed, “…cybersecurity and information security is a concern across the entire industry, and the capabilities are out there to enable us to protect things without a herculean effort. The information assurance perspectives can be addressed if you know what the requirements are up-front, and if you build and do that risk management as you go through that process.”

But there was another reason why some industry executives believed that the military has shied away from hosted payloads.

The feeling among the participants at an early-morning panel was that military decision makers and program managers simply aren’t incentivized to use hosted payloads. These panelists felt that – in their situation – it’s simply easier for senior military decision makers to launch more satellites than it is to spend the time researching alternatives, identifying any potential alternatives and going against decades of the, “we have to own it and control it,” mentality that exists in the military.

The general consensus among attendees and speakers at the Summit was that this mentally could only be overcome with a combination of education and working together to get government leaders to hold program managers and military decision makers accountable for choosing hosted payloads and other more cost-effective SATCOM alternatives.

SES-15As Mr. Beals of NASA said, “It is a process of education…Like any change, [decision makers] need to be told that it’s different, but that it will be okay. That has an element of “trust us” in there, which is generally unpopular because management wants you to prove that it’s going to work. We can’t prove that, but we can provide evidence and data from previous successful programs.”

This sentiment was echoed by Mr. Deaver, when he said, “There is a lot of need for education between the industry and government to get them comfortable with the concept of hosted payloads and get them over the fears that may be there of not being in total control of the processes.”

In addition to education, panelists and attendees discussed working together to engage senior decision makers in the military and Congress to drive home the need for hosted payloads. This is something that, according to Pete Hoene, the CEO of SES GS, is already being done. According to Mr. Hoene, “Congress is going to be a big part of this. We’re getting Congress engaged and they’re starting to hold the individual agencies and program managers accountable.”

Whether it’s an ingrained mentality that the military own and control all of its own satellites, or concerns about security, information assurance and reliability, the military continues to find reasons to spend more on building and launching their own satellites, instead of using hosted payloads. Until decision makers and program managers are educated about and held accountable for choosing hosted payloads and other lower cost methods for getting to space, the military will continue to overpay and wait longer for access to satellite capabilities. By dispelling unfounded concerns and criticisms of hosted payloads and by working as an industry to engage Congress and senior decision makers, the military can become more innovative in their approach to SATCOM, get faster and easier access to space and ultimately save taxpayer dollars at a time when government budgets are tight and additional cuts loom large on the horizon.

For additional information on hosted payloads, their benefits to the federal government and how they can provide economical access to space for government agencies and branches of the military, download the SES GS hosted payload white paper or the Hosted Payloads Infographic by clicking HERE.

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