The Air Force plans to spend $121 million over the next three fiscal years on “Pathfinders” to identify opportunities for more affordable commercial satellite communication (COMSATCOM) business arrangements, according to budget documents.

The Air Force requested $30 million in fiscal year 2017 for Pathfinder 3. It plans to execute Pathfinder 3 by purchasing pre-launch commercial Ku-band transponder capability to expand pooled bandwidth concept over the Mediterranean Sea. The Air Force also plans to fund a study to prove that airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets can “handoff” from one commercial satellite to another.

The Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) satellite is the successor to the Defense Satellite Communications System-III. Photo: Boeing.
The Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) satellite is the successor to the Defense Satellite Communications System-III. Photo: Boeing.

The service also anticipates requesting $41 million in FY ’18 for Pathfinder 4 and $50 million in FY ’19 for Pathfinder 5. The Air Force plans to scale up the pooled bandwidth concept from Pathfinder 3 and buy one Ku-band transponder per year while using an airborne ISR test asset to demonstrate the viability of exploring “high capacity” satellites.

The Air Force, over the years, developed a five-phase COMSATCOM pathfinder investment strategy to burn down risk, targeting affordability and performance. In a FY ’14 effort to study SATCOM capabilities to support remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) requirements, the service’s Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) program invested $8 million in Pathfinder 1, which Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Space Programs, Maj. Gen. Roger Teague said Thursday was awarded to SES Government Solutions.

In Pathfinder 1, on-orbit commercial Ku-band transponders were purchased to support U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) while demonstrating risk mitigation steps toward future innovative, affordable procurement of long term COMSATCOM capabilities. Congress, in FY ’16, added $26 million for Pathfinder 2, a plan to purchase two pre-launch commercial Ku-band transponders and trade for pooled, portable bandwidth within the continental United States (CONUS).

President Barack Obama signing the FY ’16 omnibus spending bill into law freed up money for Pathfinder 2 to be awarded and the service anticipates reaching out to industry “as soon as it’s ready,” according to Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Winston Beauchamp. COMSATCOM providers XTAR and Intelsat General said they responded to the Pathfinder 2 request for information (RFI). A request for proposals (RFP) for Pathfinder 2 is expected for March, according to an industry source.

The COMSATCOM industry has been asking the Air Force to try new ways of purchasing COMSATCOM bandwidth. In past years, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were at their peaks and military budgets were fatter, the Air Force would annually buy bandwidth with overseas contingency operations (OCO) funds at the last minute on the spot market, an expensive and inefficient way to purchase bandwidth. As military budgets decline, the Pentagon is looking for more efficient ways to buy bandwidth while industry is looking for a longer-term commitment so it knows where to invest to best provide for DoD’s needs.

Beauchamp said the Air Force is increasingly spending more base funding on its COMSATCOM procurement. He said more than half of the service’s COMSATCOM spending now comes from the base budget.  

“This is a different way of doing business,” Beauchamp told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday. “We’re learning from this experience.”

Beauchamp said the Air Force hopes to use its experience with the Pathfinders to inform the progress of an analysis of alternatives (AoA) that is set to begin this spring.