U.S. Military Wants New Ways to Buy Satellites, Services

The agency in the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) that buys commercial satellite services for the U.S. military is working on a new acquisition strategy, aiming to centralize and consolidate the way it deals with commercial vendors and its own internal customers, its chief said Wednesday at SATELLITE 2020.

Combined with a new acquisition strategy from the Space Development Agency, which aims to rewrite the rulebook on satellite vehicle procurement, the move represents nothing short of a revolution in the way the military spends billions of dollars a year with the satellite industry.

“One of the primary challenges we have is the fragmentation of satcom,” said Clare Grason, head of the Pentagon’s Commercial Satellite Communications Office (CSCO), which recently moved into the new U.S. Space Command. CSCO, which buys commercial satellite services for many different military services, agencies and departments, is at any given time running about 100 contracts and negotiating 30 or so more, she said.

The “transformative” new acquisition strategy, which Grason said she hoped to have ready by the summer, is designed to evolve how the military acquires and delivers commercial satellite communication services from a “disaggregated basis to a smaller series of contracts whereby we are … centralizing procurement with industry.”

The move would effectively replace the one-off contracts CSCO currently negotiates with providers on behalf of each of its customers, with a smaller collection of much larger contracts, designed to provide capability for multiple missions and customers.

“In essence, we want to aggregate our collective buying power and do a central procurement and in turn distribute that capability that we’re buying through service level agreements with our customers,” Grason told a panel discussion on military satellite acquisition. The SLA’s will determine how much the customer agency pays for the capability through some kind of rate structure, she said.

“That will preserve customer autonomy over the commercial satcom services they’re buying,” she said. Military satcom services are prioritized for use by a ponderous bureaucratic process with which most customers are unhappy, Grason said. “We don’t want to militarize commercial satcom. We believe that process would collapse under its own weight.”

One model is the way that CSCO already buys narrowband satellite communications, including satphone services, from Iridium. “My team centrally acquires capability from Iridium, we have contracts with Iridium, contracts with other companies that enable that end-to-end mission. Then we establish a rate with our customers based on a service level agreement,” Grason said.

“What we’re looking to do is replicate that model over the remainder of our purchasing,” Grason told reporters after the session. “It’s essentially more complex because we are leveraging a variety of systems, many many different suppliers.”

“The natural skepticism from our customer base is: ‘How are you going to ensure that the capabilities we are getting today is not degraded?’” Grayson acknowledged.

She added that the main question the strategy’s authors were working through was “How would we go about doing a central buy, based on the demand we know is there because we have all these separate contracts in place, and what kind of rate structure would be put in place.”

“It’s a challenging objective,” she conceded, but would ultimately benefit the military because “you’re aggregating buying power, you won’t have duplication, and we’d be able to shift resources without having to set up new contracts.”

She compared the model to that way consumers buy satellite TV. “We’d become like a direct TV. [Agencies can] pick a cable plan and we manage the contracting.”

Meanwhile, the director of the new Space Development Agency said he was planning to throw out — or at least rewrite — the acquisition rulebook to fulfill his agency’s mandate to integrate and unify all the military’s space R&D efforts and accelerate the fielding of new military space capabilities.

“I do not have a set of requirements that I’m going to build to,” said SDA Director Derek Tournear. Traditionally military acquisition starts with requirements, laying out in excruciating detail exactly what capabilities are being purchased. The problem is that just collecting and agreeing those requirements — especially if more than one agency or service is involved — can take months or even years, by which time technology has iterated and moved on.

Instead, said Tournear, the SDA plans to use a sometimes controversial approach called “spiral development.”

“I have minimum viable products that are very basic and I’m planning on fielding different tranches or spirals, generations if you will, every two years,” he said. For example, in fielding a new constellation of satellites for warfighter communications and targeting, the MVP — “dozens of satellites to allow people to see the utility [of the new constellation]” — would be launched by 2022. By 2024, tranche one would be “hundreds of satellites, for regional persistence” — i.e. the ability to provide 24/7 surveillance and communications over a particular region of the earth. The second tranche, in 2026, would complete the constellation, giving global coverage.

This method of ongoing development in theory means that new advances in technology which occur once the procurement has started can be incorporated in future tranches.

For industry, the promised changes cannot come soon enough, said Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, the senior vice president for government policy and strategy for Inmarsat Government, one of Grason’s co-panelists. “Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is a wide range of disparate, potentially even disconnected, [procurement] activities,” she said, “What I’m looking forward to, as the Space Force continues to exercise and define its roles and responsibilities ... is that single authority that can ultimately govern and shepherd all these activities.”

One of the impulses behind the creation of the Space Force was to try and create a central authority that would take charge of space procurement, replacing a patchwork of different agencies and services each buying their own way into orbit.

“Right now there are a number of different organizations [buying satellites and satellite services] that have a number of different priorities and how that all stitches together is going to be critically important so we don’t sub-optimize the outcome,” Cowen-Hirsch said. VS

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