DoD COMSATCOM acquisition reform is a complicated subject, even without the current acquisition process that stands in the way. Driven by budget concerns – having to cut budget spend in the face of sequestration and other economic factors that are reducing the money available to DoD – the question is this: Can DoD continue to support its long-standing status quo dependence on “owned” military capabilities? Particularly when advanced, cost-effective commercial capability is readily available, and operators have consistently demonstrated their willingness to engage with DoD on better buying practices that would result in huge and immediate savings.
Undersecretary of Defense Kendall’s direct and unequivocal speech at the Satellite 2013 Conference in Washington last year was the first real indicator that things might be changing, and changing fast. For over a decade of sporadic discourse, hundreds of meetings at numerous levels of the Pentagon, DISA, SMC, Air Force Space Command, and even the Hill, the commercial satellite operators have strived to understand the next step for DoD. Where does the DoD need us to be, and what will they need when we get there?
This decade of ambitious talk, mixed messages and (ultimately) inaction has been deeply frustrating, and at times, a roller coaster ride for industry. Occasionally we gained significant traction with a set of folks in one department or other, only to have that effort shelved as Generals and Staff officers were promoted and moved on. More often than not, they were replaced by others who needed educating from a starting point we had passed years before. Alternatively, our military contacts saw change as a “bridge too far” and chose to focus on things they could control, within their own scope of authority. Or, one might be forgiven for thinking, within their comfort level.
This is perhaps one of the most frustrating issues when dealing with DoD – the lack of a single point of authority on SATCOM matters. Aside from the ever-changing rotation of military personnel into and out of posts critical to making well-informed, long-term decisions on the scope and scale of the MILSATCOM/COMSATCOM architecture, there are simply too many cooks in the DoD SATCOM kitchen. Twenty different Agencies, Commands or Departments can halt, pause, deflect, change or otherwise prevent progress on any particular solution where it appears remotely possible or imminent. Not a single one has the authority to say “yes, we can!”
“The system was designed this way,” I’ve heard over and over. I’m the first to argue that industry cannot have undue influence, and I firmly believe in a level playing field for all companies who bid on Defense work – that’s a given. BUT, like our expectations of the current Congress, there is still a job to be done, and it must be done right. Avoiding this issue is akin to the proverbial head in the sand approach. Industry has repeatedly offered viable cost-effective solutions for delivering significant COMSATCOM capability to meet the needs and requirements of our warfighters, where and when they need it. It is essential that we remove the barriers to getting this done. Government/industry collaboration is the surest way of doing that.
Commercial satellite operators are – and have always been – prepared to invest more in their systems and to build satellites with features the DoD claims are important. We are willing to spend however many hours are required collaborating with DoD, to develop structures that encourage and enable us to invest in clearly defined DoD SATCOM requirements, and to incorporate specific technology features the DoD considers operationally advantageous. It is time to move from the comfort of the old ways of (not) doing something, to affirmatively meeting the SATCOM technology challenges of the 21st Century. Our warfighters deserve no less. Our taxpayers demand it.