Analyzing Alternatives in Space Communications – Why Change is Good

Myland Pride, Director, IGC Government and Legislative Affairs

Via Satellite recently published an excellent article that touched on many of the most important issues facing the United States regarding space policy and future operations. The article was based on discussions with Winston Beauchamp, Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space and the Director, Principal DoD Space Advisor Staff, in the Pentagon, and Rep. Jim Bridenstine, (R-Okla.).  These two men have been leaders inside government pushing for a new understanding of challenges in space, and how to address them.

Rep. Bridenstine framed the current situation well, as one of optimism and progress that needs to translate to concrete steps for better government/industry collaboration. From the article:

“There is a broad agreement inside the DoD that we need to take advantage of commercial communications. Some of the areas where we need improvement is including commercial communications satellite providers in the Analysis of Alternatives (AOA), and including them in the development of solutions for the next generation satellite architecture. We need frequency hopping or spread spectrum. We need encryption capabilities. These are all things that when we think about the next generation of commercial satellite architecture that can be utilized by the DOD, I think it would be appropriate for commercial satellite providers to be involved in that process on the front end, so it is not an afterthought where the U.S. government is coming in and saying we need capacity.”

We agree with Rep Bridenstine.  The on-going Wideband Communications Services Analysis of Alternatives (WCS AoA) provides the DoD an opportunity to assess the latest commercial communications technology and operations concepts.  The DoD will see how advances in commercial capabilities provide cost-effective, assured and resilient solutions to future wideband needs.

In his comments, Mr. Beauchamp hailed technological innovation being introduced into space, such as High Throughput Satellites (HTS).  These types of next-generation systems will be critical in the years ahead as other countries look to enhance their space capabilities. The United States has been the leader in space for decades, but Beauchamp is quoted in the article as saying that a fragmented approach could put that leadership at risk.

He says the country has different systems that have been developed under different agencies for different purposes:

“‘We are not looking at space comprehensively with a strategic purpose. You have got folks that are focused on weather like NOAA, and you have the DoD which has a weather component and you have even have NASA which is involved in weather,’ he added. ‘We need to look at weather comprehensively so what are all those pieces of space architecture that will allow us to better predict weather. It is not just true for weather, but it is true for other pieces of space-based capabilities as well. I am focused on breaking down these stove pipes. We need to look at things in a much broader perspective.’”

We applaud his effort break down “stove pipes” and again, for wideband communication, the WCS AoA provides an opportunity to better integrate commercial and military satellite communications.  Our industry has been saying for many years that future wideband architectures should have a clearly defined and integrated role for commercial capabilities with steady funding.

Mr. Beauchamp noted how most commercial bandwidth capacity today is purchased with Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding, which is not a stable foundation for government communications needs.  A better model is required. The AoA also provides an opportunity for the DoD to reflect on how it acquires wideband systems overall.

For example, in the future it may want to strongly consider using commercial systems for all peace-time wideband requirements, and use military systems for needs commercial companies can’t meet or in locations with limited commercial capacity.   By planning for anticipated bandwidth needs and making longer-term arrangements with commercial operators, the government can promote resilience, take advantage of technology refresh, and save money, while allowing for flexibility to surge up and down as operational needs demand.

The commercial space industry salutes these two leaders, among others, for the leadership they’ve shown on space issues. As they both have noted, there is a general consensus that new approaches are needed for America to remain preeminent in space.

The challenge in 2017 will be to take that consensus and use it to be a vehicle for change. For satellite communications, the WCS AoA provides a great vehicle to do just that.