NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.–A competition is brewing between commercial satellite operators and military satellite manufacturers as the two groups position themselves to best benefit from the Air Force’s key wideband satellite communications (SATCOM) analysis of alternatives (AoA).

The Air Force, in the next couple months, will release its AoA, an effort to solicit information from industry on what capabilities it could provide the service in the future. The AoA is critical as it will define how the government acquires SATCOM for the next decade or more, Eutelsat America CTO David Bair said March 8.

XTAR President and COO Philip Harlow told sister publication Defense Daily March 9 there are two approaches the Air Force can take toward SATCOM: It could do it all itself with a government-operated system like Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) that features military satellites in three segments: satellites, operators and users.

The Air Force’s other approach, Harlow said, is relying on satellite operators like XTAR who have been providing bandwidth and capability to Defense Department users since the Iraq War began in the early 2000s. Operators, including XTAR and Intelsat General, have been begging the Air Force for years to come up with a long term SATCOM plan so they can invest and prepare to provide DoD the service it may need by perhaps launching new satellites with increased capabilities in anticipated global hot zones.

“If you need COMSATCOM, you want to make sure it works fine when you need it,” Harlow said at the Satellite 2016 conference produced by sister publication Defense Daily parent company Access Intelligence LLC.

The looming battle brings these operators in direct competition with the most powerful companies in military contracting; Lockheed Martin [LMT], Boeing [BA] and Northrop Grumman [NOC]; which, presumably, would rather the Air Force keep its SATCOM needs in-house. All three companies develop military SATCOM satellites: Boeing develops WGS, Lockheed Martin makes the nuclear-hardened Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) constellation while Northrop Grumman builds the Enhanced Polar System (EPS), which provides EHF SATCOM above 65 degrees North.

Harlow said the government divisions of commercial operators that serve the DoD, including Eutelsat North America, Intelsat General, SES Gov’t, Inmarsat and Airbus, are talking on a regular, informal, basis in preparation for the AoA, which Harlow said will likely begin in four to six weeks. Harlow said the operators wish DoD would engage the operators as a group instead of just the larger Satellite Industry Association (SIA) trade group.

Harlow said SIA is a good forum, but it represents “too broad” of a spectrum of users, and manufacturers and operators.

“I don’t think DoD will get full value out of just engaging with SIA,” Harlow said.

Harlow is hoping that the Air Force will genuinely engage industry and listen to what it has to say as opposed to listening before walking into “a dark room” to make its decision while disregarding industry input.

“I’d like to see this more interactive, more collaborative in the future,” Harlow said. “I think that’s the best way for DoD to get what they need, rather than just ask the same question and get the same answer.”

Hughes, another satellite communications operator, has interest in the AoA. Hughes Vice President and General Manager of Defense and Intelligence Systems Rick Lober told sister publication Defense Daily March 8 the company has been in discussion with a variety of DoD officials on the AoA and feels that operators can play an important role in the analysis.

Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Winston Beauchamp told an audience March 8 the service is looking at a “broad range” of mixes between military SATCOM and COMSATCOM capabilities for its AoA. He said the Air Force currently acquires SATCOM capabilities through a mixture of MILSATCOM, WGS and the purchase of COMSATCOM links.

Beauchamp said although the Air Force doesn’t exactly know yet what it wants in its future SATCOM infrastructure, he wants flexibility and agility in future payloads. Things like a software defined radio that would allow a user to operate multiple frequencies selectively, including frequency agility and digital waveform generation and protection. Beauchamp also wants configurable antennas that allow a user to do variable power and direction to include steerable arrays that could change the number of beams dynamically without hardware configuration.

Beauchamp is looking for the ability to configure satellites into configurations where they work together more dynamically to come up with synthetic arrays for both communications purposes and sensing operations. This, he said, would mean that users won’t need to know ahead of time whether their system is going to be operating in one mode or another, it can just have a modular capability that has multiple options on board that can either sync or be put to use in a combination of many different ways.

“The roots of this kind of capability exist now, but we have, for various reasons, optimized our systems for one mission or another,” Beauchamp said. “I think as the tech continues to evolve, as we get more and more into the digital side, as we understand the similarities between many of these missions and as they converge, the unique aspects will start to fall away and will be able to take advantage of the common and not have to determine ahead of time what each of these components will be able to use.”

Lockheed Martin spokesman Chip Eschenfelder said the company has supported the Air Force through the AoA, answering its questions and providing input based on Lockheed Martin’s experience. Northrop Grumman did not respond to a request for comment by press time March 9.