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A Path to an Integrated DoD Satellite Architecture via Commercial Satcom-as-a-Service

By | February 13, 2020

Photo: Inmarsat

As Inmarsat constantly seeks to serve the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) with the most resilient, flexible, secure, and capable mobile satellite communications, we have arrived at a time of year when we look to the past to help us better prepare for the future. We carefully consider today’s challenges, threats and requirements, and then respond with imperatives which drive us to be fundamentally different. At the same time, we must always keep in mind that – no matter how the challenges and environment shift – the mission is the ultimate imperative.

At the Combined Senior Government and Industry Leaders Panel at the Satellite Industry Association’s 2019 DoD Commercial Satcom Workshop in Arlington, Virginia in December, I had the opportunity to elaborate upon these thoughts. Co-sponsored by U.S. Space Command, the event brought together government leaders from DoD combatant commands, services and agencies, as well as commercial satellite operators, service providers, integrators, ground equipment suppliers, and manufacturers.

Some of my observations included the need for a completely integrated, robust satcom architecture which is funded and planned as an enterprise network. The military community requires superior, secure, on-the-go capabilities which our industry makes readily available today. Yet government processes and methodologies can inhibit agencies from fully leveraging them, thus keeping DoD users from responding more swiftly and successfully to challenges and threats.

Fortunately, we are taking significant steps toward a better path. More than a year has passed since the responsibility for commercial satcom procurement transitioned from the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) to Space Command. This transfer means Air Force Space Command will oversee procurement of nearly all military and commercial satcom for the DoD, managing satcom as an enterprise, integrating delivery of all satcom services in the future, and increasing efficiency and effectiveness for the joint force. Gen. John Raymond, Chief of Space Operations for the U.S. Space Force and Commander of Space Command, has said, “Our vision is for users to be able to connect quickly among different satellite constellations or service providers.”

But other proposals and activity present potential distractions to this forward movement. The Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) regime is the subject of much discussion and enthusiasm right now, with a huge number of anticipated or proposed launches planned for the coming months and years. Yet there are significant issues and uncertainties to overcome such as financing, building satellite and ground infrastructure, and delivering the forecasted capabilities. Some of the aspirational companies aim to secure anchor clients, though they have yet to to establish an accurate market forecast or make a business case. One operational commercial LEO satellite communications company has posited the notion that “LEO is a neighborhood, not a business strategy.” To truly realize an integrated architecture, it must allow for the employment of multiple altitudes and capitalize on capabilities which are existent and trusted, and continue to leverage the operational investment in innovative technologies by the commercial sector.

Such an architecture would make coverage and capacity yesterday’s conversation. Rather, it would allow military and industry leaders more focused on leveraging first and foremost the comsatcom infrastructure — from resilient space segment to a robust ground infrastructure, as well as adaptable terminals — for optimum operational flexibility and affordability. With this end-to-end mindset, employing satcom as the emergent acquisition model for the modern age becomes the imperative in today’s dynamic operational environment. Satcom-as-a-Service (SaaS) enables servicemen and women access to mission-critical, reliable satcom connectivity, anytime, anywhere. Designed for global mobility, SaaS provides a critical end-to-end communications infrastructure that owned and managed by trusted commercial operators and includes both the space and ground segments, as well as type-approved terminals.

For Satcom-as-a-Service to stand as the foundation of an ideal acquisition framework, we need clear lines of authority: an architect that understands all of the essential pieces; pulls them together and watches over them; and an acquisition authority to establish and invest in a single, unified satcom architecture. Such a singular, strong advocate will further the government-industry partnership, champion investment as “commercial first” with funded programs which solve satcom issues through improved modern capabilities, flexibility, mobility, and resilience. This advocate should evolve away from the inefficient comsatcom purchasing methods dependent on Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding and focus on strategic funding for satcom capability, inclusive of commercial operators, to get past the recapitalization chasm facing the DoD satcom community today.

As we reflect and look ahead, we can swiftly conclude that the current method of how government acquires and employs satcom remains reactive. The government should establish measures of effectiveness instead of constantly stating “I need this much throughput or x-number of transponders over a geographic region region.” Rather, it can leverage the acquisition approach of SaaS end-to-end to implement the new, robust architecture that embeds technology innovation on a continuous “refresh” cycle to achieve those measure of effectiveness. This approach is not unprecedented within other sectors across the DoD, such as telecommunication and data services. Looking to these models of “as a service” can provide clear operational success lessons that translate directly to satcom.

Satcom-as-a-Service resolves the persistent disconnected ground segment challenges, with advanced terminals and the continual refreshing of technology. It exists today across the commercial sector and brings a different, yet mission-relevant set of philosophies, processes, and perspectives — and even skills. As the operational environment continues to increase in complexity and the data demands of the modern military operator increase dramatically, it will become even more essential to fully take advantage of rapidly expanding innovations such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). For us to capitalize on these innovations in the satcom realm, we must proceed more rapidly and farther along the path of the integrated architecture, in which DoD leadership remains agnostic as to who owns which satellites and makes capabilities-driven decisions instead. That is the imperative — for now and the indefinite future — that we must keep firmly within our sights.

Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch is the senior vice president of Government Strategy & Policy at Inmarsat Government.