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COMSATCOM Policy Struggles Continue Between Providers, DoD

Defense Daily – The Defense Department and commercial satellite communication (COMSATCOM) providers continue to disagree over how the service should handle future acquisition policy in an era of declining defense spending.

A focal point for this disagreement is the Air Force’s pursuit of international investment for its Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) fleet of satellites. WGS provides worldwide flexible, high data rate and long-haul non-protected communications for United States government users and international partners. While the Air Force, which largely handles DoD space programs, believes international partnerships with Canada, Australia and New Zealand bring tangible benefits to the warfighter and taxpayers, one prominent COMSATCOM industry executive believes the pursuit of international partners hurts not only industry but taxpayers and warfighters as well.

Andrew Ruszkowski, chief commercial officer of COMSATCOM operator XTAR, told Defense Daily in a recent interview the Air Force’s pursuit of international partnership in WGS, a capability he believes industry can better provide, leads the government to not only undermine a healthy industry but hurt other critical defense capabilities from being fulfilled in an era of declining defense spending.

“When DoD…buys and operates systems which they could get elsewhere, they’re also stealing funding from other government priorities,” Ruszkowski said in an interview. Ruszkowski said the government’s pursuit of international investment in WGS “shouldn’t be tolerated.”

The Air Force in August launched its sixth WGS satellite, the first purchased by Australia and the third, and final, spacecraft in the program’s Block II series. Along with WGS-6, Australia’s $700 million investment in WGS also constructed two remote monitoring and control stations to assist in payload management and tracking of WGS satellites. Boeing [BA] is prime contractor for WGS.

While Ruszkowski believes industry can deliver taxpayers a better unprotected SATCOM product at a better price than WGS, the Air Force disagrees. An Air Force spokeswoman said last week in a written response to questions COMSATCOM operators lack contiguous global coverage in many austere regions of the world where U.S. forces need to operate. She said today’s COMSATCOM architectures necessitate numerous international ground stations and use frequencies that are incompatible with portions of the current user base of military terminals and their ground system architecture.

“The WGS satellite continues to be a highly capable system, especially with the addition of the channelizer starting on WGS-8 that provides approximately double the bandwidth over early WGS satellites,” the spokeswoman said.

The Air Force believes international partnership on WGS allows for attractive cost sharing arrangements, the spokeswoman said. For example, she said Australia provided enough funds for the Air Force to procure WGS-6 and operate it for more than 20 years, thereby significantly enhancing bandwidth availability worldwide and allowing Australia to benefit from proportional access to the entire global constellation. The Air Force spokeswoman said this model of international partnership on WGS has also become one of the Air Force’s “most promising approaches” for acquiring future commercial SATCOM capabilities.

“Our commercial pathfinder activities are charting a roadmap with a potential objective of DoD ‘buying’ into a commercial constellation much like the Australians did with WGS-6,” she said.

One of these pathfinders, which will be awarded this summer, involves the Air Force purchasing a transponder on an on-orbit commercial satellite, according to the Air Force spokeswoman. This pathfinder, she said, will provide U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) with dedicated Air Force-owned transponder services at a roughly 40 percent savings over traditional lease costs of the equivalent bandwidth. It will also provide the Air Force with valuable information on effective COMSATCOM business arrangements, she said.

Though the Air Force believes WGS fills a capability niche industry can’t provide at the moment, the spokeswoman said the service is in the process of assessing future military SATCOM and COMSATCOM architectural alternatives to evaluate new opportunities to influence and leverage COMSATCOM capabilities. Ruszkowski said COMSATCOM operators believe there’s no time like the present for DoD to think of new and creative ways to better contract with industry. Ruszkowski said ideas like long-term contracting and hosted payloads are new ideas DoD should embrace.

“Things as simple as…DoD recognizing overtly that they are dependent on, and committed to, commercial operators to a minimum degree for the long term and that they’re comfortable with that,” he said. “That recognition, I think, will go a long way to opening up opportunities to do new things.”

Although DoD is comfortable with the current status of WGS, it knows no platform lasts forever. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Doug Loverro told Defense Daily earlier this month changes in the commercial world suggest there are other ways to procure SATCOM.

“We see a sunset on WGS and we see moving to a more commercially-based capability for our normal wideband needs,” Loverro said after a National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) event in Arlington, Va. “We need to move some DoD money over to do protected communication so we don’t need to do things like WGS.”

Ruszkowski recently responded to Loverro’s comments, saying in a statement that recent statements by DoD and Air Force officials indicate, at least in the case of WGS, they are becoming more comfortable relying on COMSATCOM operators for unprotected broadband capabilities. Ruszkowski added if this translates into DoD abandoning a policy of expanding the WGS fleet through solicitation of international investment, that will be a “very good outcome” for all stakeholders.

“Furthermore, I hope that DoD applies a new, more appropriate approach to establishing space capabilities going forward,” he said. “Namely, one which leverages commercial systems when, and where, they can be most effective and then military satellite systems where they make the most sense.”

Ruszkowski is not the first SATCOM industry exec to raise concerns over the way DoD procures SATCOM services. Intelsat General CEO Kay Sears told Defense Daily in 2012 that DoD’s penchant for spot market buying, or buying bandwidth capacity at the last minute, made it difficult for industry to properly invest in capabilities and provide DoD what it needs years down the road (Defense Daily; Nov. 29, 2012).