Continued Momentum for Commercial Satellite Acquisition Reform

Committees in the House and Senate are making significant progress towards crafting the two annual bills that set policy for and fund our national defense. The first step in enacting this year’s policy bill, the Fiscal Year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), was completed in late April, when the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) passed their version of the bill.

And this week, with the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) considering its own version of the bill, the NDAA debate is moving into its advanced stages. While both chambers of Congress must ultimately agree on legislation in order to combine their bills before becoming law, the initial proposals in the HASC’s NDAA point to a promising future for more efficient procurement of satellite services by the DoD.

Ways to improve satellite procurement have been called out in NDAA language since 2014 – as detailed here. Over the past two years the language has become more explicit on how to improve the acquisition process, and we applaud Congress for giving the DoD more flexibility in acquiring commercial technology in space.

This year’s bill contains two more important additional steps that would build on changes in 2014 and 2015 language. They are:

  • A requirement that DoD select a senior official to be the procurement official for both MILSATCOM and COMSATCOM – this is a key underpinning of better planning, since currently there is no such centralized authority. As a result, a holistic understanding of DoD needs in space is hampered.
  • A requirement that the DoD continue a pilot program to more efficiently acquire COMSATCOM – this builds on a previous, completed Pathfinder effort; starting in FY 2017 the bill also requires performance metrics and an annual report on Pathfinder to Congress.

Importantly, the HASC bill not only requires that the Pathfinder program continue, but the committee also proposes spending $26 million in FY16 on the next step in the ongoing effort.

As promising as any one of these legislative developments are, what’s even more encouraging is the increasingly apparent cultural change in the procurement process regarding space. A challenging budgetary environment and increasing threats to America’s preeminence in space have made Congress and the DoD much more receptive to new collaborative approaches with commercial providers.

The NDAA guidance represents a steady, iterative movement towards a more efficient space architecture. Congress is fully engaged, and there will be no return to the old status quo. Senior leaders such as General Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command and Admiral Cecil Haney, commander of Strategic Command have spoken strongly and publicly about getting commercial technology developed and deployed in space in a much faster and more efficient manner.

Change is never easy, and there is certainly more to be done. As the SASC does its work behind closed doors this week, I hope they carefully consider the House’s proposed language.

However, the NDAA is only part of the whole picture. Arguably just as important are the House and Senate defense appropriations bills, which are due to be considered in the coming weeks and months. They are vital to the success of some of the policies set forward in the NDAA. Sufficient resourcing levels, like those recommended by the HASC, must be included by the appropriations committees in order to turn sound strategic policy into action.

So, while the NDAA half of the annual process moves along with just a couple of pieces left to fall into place, there is another half remaining on the appropriations side. But looking back on the completed first quarter, important first steps have moved the country towards improved space acquisition and a strengthened space posture.

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