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Downlink: WGS + How The DoD's MILSATCOM Vision Has Veered Off Track
by William J. Donahue, Lieutenant General, U.S.A.F. [Ret.]


The Department of Defense’s recently published “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense” calls for decisions on which military investments to continue, which to defer, and which to cancel. The result must maintain a ready and capable force while reducing “the cost of doing business.”

xtarFig1 How does the current U.S. military satellite communications (MILSATCOM) architecture fit into this 21st century defense strategy? In my opinion, it is not a good fit. That is unfortunate because the MILSATCOM domain can become a model for balancing defense needs with business efficiencies.

The foundations for this balance are rooted in the U.S. Air Force MILSATCOM architecture of 15 years ago—developed when U.S. forces and resources were undergoing unprecedented reductions due to the Cold War “Peace Dividend.” The MILSATCOM architecture then was divided into three segments:

1. Wideband: Build a three-satellite fleet providing assured capacity for military forces, filling the “gap” between the demise of the Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS) constellation and the fielding of the next generation of wideband capability. DoD anticipated most of its wideband connectivity needs would be met by the increasingly capable and available commercial SATCOM systems. As these commercial systems came on line, the thinking went, the DoD would use its budget and buying leverage to be the smart buyer of these commercial capabilities, while wideband service from WGS and commercial would to be the source of assured “capacity” for U.S. forces.

2. Protected: Build four satellites that could avoid, negate and mitigate attempts to disrupt, deny, or exploit U.S. operational connectivity. This was viewed as the “hardened, thin-line of connectivity” that would provide the “assured” connectivity needed for operations under the most stressing conditions imaginable.

3. Narrowband: Mitigate the aging of UHF Follow-on (UFO) satellites, assess commercial offerings, and examine the need for a system (military or commercial) in 2007 and beyond to serve the “comms on the move” (COTM) needs of U.S. forces.

The Global Information Grid (GIGsee the illustration above)—the “system of systems” concept—was just emerging at the turn of the century, with MILSATCOM viewed as a key component. Commercial SATCOM was central to the GIG, requiring thoughtful integration with powerful solutions that were emerging in terrestrial (global fiber) and wireless (cell phone) domains. “GIG” thinking was also viewed as a path to affordability and mission assurance for U.S. forces undergoing unprecedented reductions as the nation “cashed-in” on the “Cold War Peace Dividend.”

xtarFig2 The overall Global Information Grid concept was straightforward: assured capacity, assured connectivity, and COTM through a rich mix of terrestrial, maritime, air and space-based connectivity to meet the global connectivity requirements of U.S. forces.

To achieve true efficiencies and provide assured communications, the DoD had to become a smart buyer of the ubiquitous commercial SATCOM that was entering the market. The department began to actively consider its role as public/private partnerships were taking shape and terminals were becoming smaller and more capable on a global scale.

These developments promised an exciting SATCOM technology landscape for the late ‘90s. The GIG “system of systems” strategy was poised to deliver on the promise that bandwidth would not be a limiting factor when it was time to apply force, that connectivity would be “like oxygen on the battlefield,” always available, always on, and in sufficient quantities required by U.S. and Allied forces. Assured capacity, assured connectivity, COTM and efficiency were all within reach; the DoD would build must-have systems that commercial was unlikely to field, and be the smart buyer in the market for the balance of its required capability.

So Much For Integrating Commercial SATCOM Into The DoD GIG Architecture
Inexplicably, the DoD now finds itself on a substantially different path, a path almost 180 degrees from that envisioned in the late ‘90s during the days of the “Peace Dividend.” Current DoD policy appears focused on purchasing large systems and capabilities—at enormous taxpayer cost—rather than acquiring those same services from the proven commercial market place.

Case in point: The WGS program morphed from “Gapfiller” to Wideband “Global” Satellite. The acronym remains the same, but the concept has radically changed and expanded. From the original three-satellite system, the DoD is on a path to deliver ten WGS satellites on orbit and appears to be focused on replacing as much commercial SATCOM as possible in the process. (In an ironic historical footnote, the highly-touted all-encompassing capabilities of the early 2000’s Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT) became a casualty of DoD’s unwillingness and inability to commit the necessary resources; transformation was not a technical challenge—it was a resource challenge.)

A further example of DoD’s new MILSATCOM architecture is its commitment to acquiring a purpose-built Mobile User Objective System (MUOS). This complex and costly system will provide capability almost identical to the commercially-delivered mobile services we have come to rely on in our daily lives.

The protected Advance Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) system continues to stay the MILSATCOM architecture course, as it rightly should. However, it appears likely that budget pressures will cause upgrades to be deferred.

With the advantage of hindsight, we can see several consequences of government not giving commercial SATCOM a formal, planned role in supporting the Defense Department’s MILSATCOM architecture. First and foremost, the DoD was unable to become the commercial SATCOM “smart” buyer envisioned in the “Peace Dividend” manifesto. The DoD continues to pay spot market prices because it lacks program and budget line authorization. This constraint forces the Department to purchase capacity when dollars become available, when needs and international demands are greatest, and more to the point, when market prices are at a premium.

xtarFig3 New Acquisition Policies—
The Law of Unintended Consequences

The DoD has expanded and altered its WGS program to curb spending on commercial SATCOM. Its efforts embrace two components: “block buying” to drive down acquisition costs, and international participation to “burden share” user costs for the WGS constellation.

One outcome of this strategy is that the DoD’s WGS program is now a direct, front-line competitor in the commercial wideband market. This is akin to the government buying a fleet of expensive cars for officials to travel routes well served by reliable public transportation just to get a “volume discount” on the purchase! It reminds me of the old adage about cost avoidance: why tell people you are saving $2 by walking to work rather than taking the bus, when you could brag about saving $10 by walking rather than taking a taxi. The use of scarce DoD dollars on WGS, which is arguably equivalent to or less technically capable than leading edge commercial systems, results in several consequences:

Undermines United States’ protected communications capabilities because it uses scarce resources that could be applied to these critical systems.

Does not add anything to the industrial base which manufacturers are not already doing in the design and build of commercial systems.

Perpetuates spot market purchases when operational and warfighter bandwidth needs rise above the capacity of WGS.


Encouraging Signs
The Department is investigating hosted payloads on commercial satellites and is exploring, albeit sporadically, outright purchase of commercial satellites for DoD needs. However, these developments are burdened by bureaucracy and are insufficiently bold to address critical cost and capability requirements. Furthermore, while recent national space policies make encouraging assertions about increased use of commercial satellite bandwidth, these policies appear weighted in favor of the U.S. defense sector at the expense of commercial satellite operators.

The DoD needs a “capabilities based” procurement method that recognizes the maturity of the commercial SATCOM manufacturers and their ability to build and field capacity that is compatible with military needs and requirements. The commercial SATCOM industry’s ability to deliver a defined capability on orbit, on a time-definite schedule, at an affordable and set price, should be the envy of every DoD program manager. Clearly the military must, and should, build to its specific military requirements when there is no commercial solution. However, most current and anticipated military SATCOM needs can be met by commercial solutions.

Has anyone asked the question: what would a commercial X-band or Ka-band satellite cost compared to a “block bought” WGS satellite?

Demand for efficiencies in DoD purchasing and spending are important, but mission success is an imperative. Our fighting forces in the future may be smaller, but they will depend even more on technology to make them capable, agile, and successful. Bandwidth and connectivity are critical ingredients in that equation. Now is the time to explore every avenue possible to drive down costs and drive in capabilities.

It is time for the DoD to clearly delineate when they will be a SATCOM provider/consumer (AEHF) and when they should be the smart consumer on the commercial market. The current WGS strategy mixes and confuses this important provider/consumer paradigm.

The Way Ahead
From the perspective of three-plus decades in the U.S. Air Force, serving in a variety of communications, information, command and control positions at virtually every level, I humbly offer the following suggestions:

Establish a Commercial SATCOM Budget Line: This may seem like a “blinding flash of the obvious,” but it is long overdue. The vast majority of commercial SATCOM spending over the last decade was “off-budget,” executed through emergency supplemental funding, or, more currently, Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds. Absent a budget line, industry has lacked fundamental market predictions and forecasts to support investments that could provide mission capability for the DoD while providing a respectable ROI for the business. The time is overdue to consider a “Commercial SATCOM Industrial Fund.” Unless and until there is a commercial SATCOM budget line and a capacity purchasing program that leverages DoD’s enormous buying power, the DoD will continue paying premium prices for required bandwidth. Defense has long acquired telecommunications as services; the process is well defined and the contractual instruments are mature. Why should commercial SATCOM acquisition practices be any different than those for terrestrial communications?

xtarFig4 Consider a SATCOM Civil Reserve Fleet: This concept has surfaced sporadically but there is reasonable doubt it has ever received more than cursory consideration. U.S. Transportation Command and Air Mobility Command have employed the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) model for decades, while the U.S. commercial airline industry has superbly served DoD airlift needs. It is time to draw on the lessons learned from the CRAF airlift concept to determine if the concepts can, and should be, applied to a SATCOM Civil Reserve Fleet. Properly executed, a SATCOM CRAF strategy could be a key ingredient in the operationally responsive space (ORS) effort.

Revisit Governance of International SATCOM Sources & Use: Current SATCOM mandates, policies and laws, while well intended, frequently have unintended consequences. In any event, they are doing little to protect U.S. interests in the international arena. Many of these policies are bringing non-market forces into play and thus altering the free market environment that delivers best value to the government customer. WGS, ITAR, public/private partnerships, international cooperation—all demand review in light of current DoD requirements and economic realities.

In closing I am reminded of a recent feature in Aviation Week & Space Technology discussing manned space flight and the use of commercial capabilities. It was titled “Commercial Space Day Has Not Come.” In my mind, this aptly sums up the current commercial satellite communications market. DoD needs to rethink its mandates, carefully and intentionally partner with industry, and explore new models for being a smart buyer of commercial SATCOM. Only then will DoD achieve required mission success and the efficiencies demanded by today’s economic and strategic realities.

donahueHead About the author
Mr. Donahue retired from the U.S. Air Force as a lieutenant general in May 2000. When he retired he was the Director of Communications and Information at Air Force Headquarters and Commander of the Air Force Communications and Information Center in Washington, D.C.

During his 33-year Air Force career, Mr. Donahue served in a variety of communications, information, command and control positions at virtually every level in the Air Force. He has extensive background in the full range of Air Force information technology, telecommunications and space-based systems. Among a range of clients, he currently advises, XTAR, LLC on satellite communications matters.