How the DoD Can More Efficiently Acquire Satellite Systems and Capacity

How best to increase efficiency while reducing costs in defense procurements, yet still delivering the highest quality services to the American warfighter? Those were the questions raised in an excellent op-ed published recently in Space News. The piece was written by James Gill of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and is located here (subscription required). 

Gill makes many excellent points in his piece, noting that the cost-overruns of government satellite constellations in the past were the result of the “often unrealistic cost, schedule and technical goals set for these systems.”

Later in the article, he adds, “We are moving toward another period of fiscal frugality in the development of our next generation of DoD weapon systems, and it will not be the first time that we have faced these circumstances and attempted to adapt to this reality.

He predicts that once the much-scrutinized next-generation space programs currently in production are operational, they will be state-of-the-art and deliver amazing capabilities to the warfighter before concluding, “We are continually on the lookout for ways to reduce costs, while ensuring that mission success remains paramount. We have to ensure that in the rush to minimize cost, we do not add undue risk to the ultimate goal, which is to provide the very best systems to the warfighter.

There is no question that amazing new constellations are being designed to meet the military’s SATCOM needs in the distant future. But we also need to examine how the military and the commercial sector can more efficiently collaborate right now in a very strict budgetary climate. There is a big SATCOM gap to fill now before these next-generation systems come on line.

In the early 2000s, the military began to rely heavily on the global commercial satellite industry to meet its evolving and expanding requirements – carrying communications from the war zone with the invasion of Iraq and supporting the deployment of U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Existing military satellite fleets, such as DSCS and Milstar, were stretched thin and could not begin to meet the new demand imposed by UAVs.

Currently, commercial satellite resources supply more than 90% of the U.S. military’s satellite communications capacity in Afghanistan and Iraq. More and better onboard sensor suites continue to drive more UAV flights and even more need for additional satellite capacity.

We recently highlighted a thought provoking feature story in Air Force magazine that quoted many senior officials talking about defending America’s supremacy in space by reevaluating the procurement status quo. There are innovative approaches – hosted payloads, more efficient, long-term bandwidth purchasing — that could make a big difference today, while we all anticipate what will become available in the next decade.

American capacity in space is the best in the world. We can all take pride in that fact. To remain so, we need a clearer roadmap from the U.S. DoD of how we address rising SATCOM demands today, as we build and deploy the next-generation systems of tomorrow.