Pentagon Challenged to Procure a New Satellite in Less Than 12 Years

Twelve years. That’s how long it can take the Pentagon to plan, design, build and launch an on-orbit satellite. By contrast, satellite communications providers like Intelsat can get a new telecommunications satellite from the drawing board to service in around 36 months. It’s no wonder that U.S. Air Force General John Hyten expressed his frustration over the Pentagon’s broken procurement process at the recent Reagan National Defense Forum.

Peter B. de Selding quoted Hyten in an article for Space Intel Report (subscriber only):

“I was in a meeting at the Pentagon. I am going to keep the names out of it and keep the program out of it. We were discussing whether we should buy a functional equivalent of one of our on-orbit satellites, and somebody I respect very much made the following statement:

‘It’ll be very risky if we can get that delivered by 2029.’

“That was this year. Think about that for a second: 2029, that’s 12 years from now! Boeing will go through four generations of commercial satellites. And by the way, if they can’t build [the commercial satellite] in three years, they’re out of business because Loral will build it in three years. That’s the commercial sector.”

The cumbersome process isn’t limited to satellite communications. The Joint IP Modem is a prime example of how the Pentagon’s lengthy and cumbersome procurement process renders technology irrelevant by the time it reaches the field. The difference, however, is that today’s wideband communications a well-established, known quantity.

“There is a requirements process that is sclerotic at the Pentagon,” U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said. “And there is an Analysis of Alternatives in a case where this is not revolutionary technology. We’re just trying to build something that is largely well-developed and known. Just get after it and get the bureaucracy out of the way.”

The Wideband Communications Services Analysis of Alternatives (WCS AoA) seeks to investigate how the Department of Defense can take advantage of commercial capabilities by reducing the amount of time it takes to procure them. Hyten and Wilson, however, implied that the AoA isn’t necessary for commercial satellites.

“It’s just a commodity,” Hyten said. “Why don’t we buy it as a commodity? It’s wideband communications.”

The Pentagon’s ability to more quickly procure satellite communications wouldn’t just give the DoD access to reliable communications. It would also give them access to the industry’s latest innovations, thereby enabling them to maintain an advantage over adversaries. For example, high-throughput satellite (HTS) connectivity like that provided by Intelsat EpicNG offers the military the opportunity to support a variety of missions that require high data rates into small mobile antennas for secure comms-on-the-move, including full-motion video into Class III RPAs.

We are glad to hear that the procurement people at the Pentagon are now on the same page as Wilson and Hyten. Regarding the 12-year satellite-creation process, Wilson said: “The great thing is that General Hyten now has the support of the Pentagon, which agrees with him. And we’re not going to let that happen.”

We don’t have any indication of what that might mean in the near term, but given the candid nature of Hyten’s and Wilson’s views, we’re sure we’ll hear more about change in 2018!

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