Skip to content

COMSATCOM Acquisition Primer – How Did We Get Here?

An XTAR Blog Series

As I said in my introductory post to this series, DoD acquisition reform for commercial satcom is a complicated subject. Here are some of what I believe to be the reasons why this process has become so difficult, including the origins and history behind the erratic efforts at reform over the last several years.

Starting in the early 1960’s, global communication via satellites has grown to become essential to the U.S. Government, especially its military branches.  Military dependency on SATCOM for bandwidth grew 500 percent [link to study] the 13 years between Operation Desert Storm (ODS) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). This trend of rapid expansion for military operations continues today, even as we wind down Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). While the number is subject to much debate, over 80 percent of SATCOM bandwidth used by the military to conduct OIF and OEF was acquired from commercial SATCOM operators. COMSATCOM has become a critical mission enabler for DoD military communications satellites that don’t have sufficient or suitable capacity to support all of the Pentagon’s missions. This significant capability gap makes it necessary to continue to leverage commercial SATCOM to fill these gaps in coverage and capacity.

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets in theatre, as well as high-definition video, have come of age within the past 5-7 years.  Identifying enemy locations in real time while knowing exactly where your own troops are positioned has become a game-changing capability in theaters of modern conflict.  It is difficult to imagine going back to the days before such capabilities. What commander today would assert that “we don’t need such capabilities any more, let’s just estimate where the enemy is?”

These enhanced ISR capabilities come with the imperative to get that all-important data from the intelligence platforms to the commanders and troops on the ground. This is where commercial satellites have been used extensively – and have proved to be a true warfighter enabler.  The appetite for such enhanced intelligence is expected to grow very quickly. UAVs, in particular, require long-distance, high-bandwidth communications to fly the platforms, as well as to receive live video imagery. COMSATCOM provides the critical link to conduct and support these types of operations.

The DoD’s Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) system was originally introduced as an interim system to augment and replace the aging Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS) before being replaced by the Transformational Satellite Communications System, or TSAT.  However, TSAT was cancelled in 2009 in favor of WGS expansion and the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Definition (AEHF) system. WGS was originally named the Wideband Gapfiller Satellite program, its name being changed after TSAT was cancelled to reflect the fact that it was no longer an interim program.