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DISA Likely To Lose Commercial Satcom Role to Air Force SMC

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. photo

Rep. Jim Bridenstine

CAPITOL HILL: Who buys the bandwidth? Today the military has two separate, unequal, and inefficient systems for acquiring communications. But Congress is pushing hard to consolidate — probably at the expense of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA).

“I have been in situations where we needed to have SATCOM [satellite communications] and we didn’t have the right terminal for the right satellite… because the architecture is not integrated between commercial and military,” Rep. Jim Bridenstine, a former Navy pilot, said this morning at the Capitol Hill Club. That’s more than inefficient: It’s a potential battle-loser.

“We need a unified acquisition agent to create a unified architecture,” Bridenstine told me after his public remarks. “The way I wrote my provision [in the House draft of the annual defense bill], the DoD would identify who that agent would be.”

The options are either DISA, which leases communication services for the military from the commercial sector, or the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), which buys military satellites.

But the Senate goes a step forward and specifies the winner: SMC. “The committee recommends … consolidating the acquisition of commercial satellite communications (COMSATCOM) services from across the Department of Defense into a program office in the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center,” reads the Senate Armed Services Committee report (section 1609). The report further derides the current system for COMSATCOM — i.e. the system run by DISA — as “highly inefficient.”

Bridenstine acknowledged the difference with the Senate — but he didn’t seem that bothered. When I pressed him on reasons to choose one agency over the other, he declined to pick a favorite. The next thing out of his mouth was telling, however: “I had testimony from Gen. [John] Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command,” the congressman said. “He indicated that it ought to be SMC.”

Both purpose-built military communications satellites and rented commercial services have their place, Bridenstine emphasized. The military-owned is more robust against jamming, hacking, and anti-satellite attack. The commercial is more flexible and keeps better pace with the latest technology. But the two must be better integrated into a single, seamless system, he said: “That will be better for the taxpayer and the warfighter will get more capability.”

“We have two separate systems going two different directions — and that was needed at the time,” Bridenstine said. But what was originally a stopgap for the Afghan and Iraq wars had become a permanent need. “As we go forward and the requirements continue to grow,” he said, “we’re creating a long-term problem where you’ve got these stovepiped different entities purchasing satellite capacity in different ways”: DISA by leasing it, SMC by building it.

Consolidating acquisition authority is simply one step in making better use of the extensive and innovative commercial satellite industry, Bridenstine said this morning at a Peter Huessy Congressional Breakfast.

The advances are exponential. “We’re talking about satellites being launched a couple of years ago that had seven gigabits per second,” Bridenstine said. “Now we’ve got satellites being launched at 140 gigabits per second. Next year we’re going to have satellites being launched at multiple hundreds of gigabits per second — in the commercial sector.”

“Where are we on the defense side of things? 20 gigabits per second,” he said grimly, and replacing those systems through the normal acquisition process will “give us satellites that are obsolete by the time we launch them.”

“There is an architecture in space that currently exists and we’re not fully taking advantage of it,” Bridenstine said. “To the extent we do, it costs too much money.”

To take full advantage of commercial satcom — and integrate it seamlessly with purpose-built military systems — “we need a new waveform,” Bridenstine said. That’s specifically the Protected Tactical Waveform (PTW), whose funding Bridenstine identified as his “number one” priority for this year. “If we’re going to have commercial integration, we’ve got to have that,” he said.

House appropriators dislike that PTW is being funded out of the military’s AEHF (Advanced Extremely High Frequency) satellite program. “If we need to move it out of AEHF, I support that,” Bridenstine said, “but what you don’t do is zero out that account.” The Senate appropriators did find funding for PTW, Bridenstine said, and he’ll work to help the Senate position prevail in conference. (Bridenstine’s a member of the House Armed Services Committee but not the appropriations committee, so his leeway here is limited).

Bridenstine’s No. 2 priority, he said, is Pathfinder, an attempt to bypass traditional restrictions on acquiring commercial satellite communications.

Under current law and regulation, the military has to lease COMSATCOM year-by-year out using Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds. Multi-year leasing isn’t allowed. But buying hardware falls under different rules. Pathfinder would exploit that by buying a commercial transponder, then immediately turning around and trading it back to the commercial provider in return for multi-year services.

“You can call it a gimmick , I’ll call it innovative,” Bridenstine said to laughter. And while the president’s budget included no money for Pathfinder, he said, “I got Pathfinder 2 funded in the NDAA and it looks like the Senate is going to follow suit.”

Ultimately, Bridenstine said, Pathfinder will change how the Defense Department buys commercial communications services. “Instead of buying megahertz, which is just bandwidth, we need to move to a day we’re buying throughput, gigabits per second,” he said. In other words, we should pay providers based on results — the amount of information moved to where it needs to go.

Doesn’t all this use of commercial capabilities — which anyone in the world can buy — potentially put us on the same level as our adversaries? “They can take advantage of it as well, absolutely they could,” Bridenstine said. “It is also true that if they do and we don’t, we lose.”

What do you think?