Apples-to-Satellites: What Are We Comparing?

The Senate Armed Services Committee recently requested five-, 10-, and 25-year strategic plans from DoD for the appropriate blend of military and commercial satellite bandwidth. Presumably, the committee is seeking cost-avoidance in the present and cost-savings in the long run. I have not actually seen any attempt at this type of comparison for several years. Industry is eager to prove its value and capabilities, but DoD has not been forthcoming in releasing all its raw costs for accurate comparison.

Unless the Committee requires an apples-to-apples comparison of the costs involved in defining such a military/commercial bandwidth strategy, any supposed comparison of the aggregate cost will be meaningless. The only way for this to be effective is for Congress, DoD, and industry to collaborate in identifying the metrics for a cost comparison. Such standard measurements would act as check and balance on competing interests.

For example., launch cost is one of the data points frequently overlooked when comparisons are drawn. A ULA launch is purported to run the U.S. Government over $400M, whereas commercial launchers offer proven capabilities at one-third or less of that cost. Another cost often oddly left out of the equation is operations. While WGS, for example, is operated by a workforce numbering in the hundreds, the largest commercial operators with several dozen or more satellites need only a modest couple of dozen employees to operate across three shifts. Setting aside the question of why these disparities exist in the first place, another blog in itself, the Senate Committee should at least require that these types of costs be factored into any assessment.

The fact that Congress has requested information on milsatcom vs. comsatcom balance is positive. Reducing unnecessary and costly excess may be the silver lining in our nation’s budget woes. We believe real dollars can be saved immediately and in the future. But only if DoD is willing to forgo its insistence on owning bespoke systems when it often makes more economic sense to use commercial capacity that is better suited to the mission and the application. Unless and until that data is available for a pure analysis, cost-effective high-quality commercial bandwidth will continue to be inefficiently procured by DoD.