The Air Force is waiting for Pentagon acquisition overseers to sign off on its wideband satellite communications (SATCOM) analysis of alternatives (AoA), giving one satellite operator executive hope the Air Force could release the AoA guidance to industry.
“If they are at a point where they are waiting for sign off, that should signal some good news at least in terms of allowing the community to understand what the guidance is,” XTAR President and COO Philip Harlow told sister publication Defense Daily in a recent interview.
A satellite operator source told Defense Daily Nov. 28 that the Defense Department has a classified wideband AoA guidance letter from the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office. The source said officials are working to redact this letter so that it can be released to industry.
DoD spokesman Mark Wright said Nov. 22 that the wideband AoA program is scheduled for a Defense Acquisition Board (DAB) review in December. Wright said if the review is successful, the Milestone Decision Authority will document the Material Development Decision (MDD) with an Acquisition Decision Memorandum (ADM), which will guide the subsequent AoA and set expectations for the for the next acquisition decision for the program. The satellite operator source said the MDD decision by Pentagon acquisition czar Frank Kendall is expected either Dec. 15 or 16.
Harlow said there was previously a question as to whether DoD would release wideband AoA guidance. DoD spokesman Mark Wright was unable to respond a request for comment by press time Nov. 28.
The wideband AoA is a key component of the Air Force evaluation of its Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) replacement. It will define how the government acquires SATCOM for the next decade or more, Eutelsat America CTO David Bair said in March.
Commercial SATCOM operators are pushing the Air Force to buy more capacity from them as opposed to building another government-owned satellite constellation like WGS. The Air Force, on the other hand, has shied away from committing long-term to purchasing satellite capacity. Instead, the service bought satellite capacity on the spot market at the last minute, meaning it was paying peak rates.
Harlow said he’s concerned that the Air Force will look back at the last 10-15 years of operations and the amount of SATCOM capacity it bought during that time frame and use that as a placeholder for future WGS fleet capacity. This, Harlow said, would be a way to freeze SATCOM operators from being part of the architecture.
“I’m pretty convinced that the Pentagon does not believe that it can rely on commercial (operators) any more than they have to when they have no choice,” Harlow said. “I think that’s really all they are looking at us (for), someplace to go when they have no other choice.”
Operators for years have been begging the Air Force to get its SATCOM procurement priorities in order so they can invest in capabilities to provide the service what it needs and make capacity easy to buy. Harlow said if the Air Force decides to build another big system simply because it can, then the operators are going to not have a choice but to evaluate other markets.
Harlow said DoD, in its history, has never had enough satellite bandwidth capacity procured from either its own military satellites or commercial satellites.
“Even if they build a behemoth system, I believe (DoD will) still going to need access to commercial systems,” Harlow said.
Even a small signal would be acceptable to Harlow. He said if the Air Force said it wanted to procure 10, 20 gigabyte (GB) satellites, or 10, 100 GB satellites, that would really “put a stake in the ground” for where the service believes it is headed.
Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space and Director, Principal DoD Space Adviser Staff, Winston Beauchamp, told sister publication Defense Daily Nov. 17 that he reached out to 15 international partners for their input on a WGS follow-on. Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Annmarie Annicelli said in addition to working closely with commercial operators, Beauchamp invited allies and partners to participate in DoD’s future SATCOM capability because they are stakeholders as well. Harlow said the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand are three of those countries that have been asked if they would be willing to provide input to the AoA. Two of those nations, Australia and New Zealand, are partners on WGS.