Commercial satellite operators can justly claim a portion of credit for the successful DoD missions in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade and a half, and before that during the Balkans conflicts. We’ve reallocated transponders by the dozen, steered beams from other regions into Southwest Asia (SWA) and the Middle East (ME), moved satellites from elsewhere into the region, and added new capabilities to new satellites headed for those regions of U.S. operations. So, as we engage with DoD in the dialogue about the Wideband Global System (WGS) replacement strategy – essentially commercial capabilities on a military-owned bus – why are we seeing such reluctance by DoD to define a space architecture that embraces its reliance on commercial assets? There are a few things that might make the picture a little clearer.
Firstly, today’s fleets of WGS, Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) and Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites are manufactured by the usual suspects – Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, etc., and they are understandably advocating to build the follow on satellite systems. These powerful organizations have strong financial incentives at stake. Also, these satellites are typically launched by United Launch Alliance (ULA); a joint venture by Lockheed and Boeing. There is no desire on their part to see these launches competed globally, whereas a lot of commercial satellites are launched outside of the U.S.
Next, there is the perception of lack of control when using commercial satellite capacity. DoD likes to own their own capabilities where they can. Relying on commercial satellites for their mission is not as familiar or as comfortable a position for military commanders. They are used to owning and controlling as much of the overall mission as possible – a natural instinct by any military commander – when they are responsible for the lives of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in dangerous situations. But in the use of commercial satellites in support of operations, any perceived loss of control has not been borne out in the past 15+ years across the entire SWA/ME region and more.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the prospect of cost savings, as espoused by Congress, is really not a big incentive to DoD. Particularly in these more austere times when some programs cannot be fully funded, how can this be? I am not saying DoD has a wanton disregard for saving money, but here is the fact: if DoD finds a way to save, they probably won’t get to keep those savings or reallocate them elsewhere to other programs. Let’s say DoD saves $100 million per year by formally relying on commercial satellites rather than building their own bespoke system(s). Congress will reallocate that money to another Government program instead. So DoD sees no gain.
If those holding the purse strings in Congress do not find a way to reward DoD for collaborating with the commercial satellite operators, we will continue to get what we’ve already got. In my opinion, there is a lot of money to be saved (well in excess of the $100 million per year I mentioned above), so we need to find the right incentives to encourage DoD to look at this issue closely and make the smart choices. Perhaps we allow DoD to reallocate saved money to other programs at their discretion. Or perhaps we authorize lower levels of command, say at the Service level, for the Air Force to order more of a specific system that they need with the saved funds.
The dialogue thus far has been to highlight the problem. Now we need to take the next step. I believe there is a way for us to find the right balance of bespoke systems that have unique military capabilities that commercial companies will never build for commercial customers, and reliance on commercial satellites for the bulk of the beyond-line-of-sight mission. Only by acknowledging, and acting on the value of collaboration will we (collectively) be able to solve this challenge.