Category Archives: Apr – Jun 2018

Army’s Voice in Space

Is There Cause for Concern?

By Gary Shugart

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The Department of Defense (DOD) relies on space capabilities and services such as satellite communications; missile warning; position, navigation and timing; and intelligence information to conduct military operations. While the Air Force develops and acquires most military space systems, the Army is the largest DOD user of space capabilities and as such, has a vested interest in ensuring the Air Force considers Army requirements as it develops and fields space systems.1

Excessive cost and schedule overruns along with system capability failures of space acquisition programs caused Congress to repeatedly order assessments of the military’s organization and management of space activities. Continued congressional interest resulted in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) directing specific changes in space organization.

Additionally, the 2018 NDAA directed the Deputy Secretary of Defense (DepSecDef) to conduct a review and identify a recommended organizational and management structure for the national security space components of the DOD, including the Air Force Space Command.2  This should concern the Army as it aims to sustain support to soldiers performing tactical operations.

In response to 2018 NDAA direction, Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan provided an interim report to Congress on March 1, 2018, which previews the four major focus areas (research, development, acquisition and sustainment; organization and governance; joint warfighting; and workforce development) in the review of the organizational and management structure of DOD national security space components.3

The interim report discussion of organization and governance states, “The Department will decide how to improve the organization of the DOD space enterprise to increase performance. We will determine if organizational changes are needed at the Office of the Secretary of Defense and/or Military Department or Service levels, including whether the Space Corps concept should be implemented.”4

The final report, due to Congress on Aug. 1, 2018, will include a space portfolio plan outlining the specific capabilities necessary for the DOD to compete with Russia and China in space.5 The space portfolio plan will allow DOD to identify key organizational and technology hurdles that must be addressed.6

Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, in January 2017 testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Strategic Forces Subcommittee, said the primary national security space challenge is that the Department of Defense is not structured to outpace real and present threats to the space enterprise.7 He identified two major difficulties. First, the United States has separate, non-aligned lines of operational, acquisition and resourcing authorities. Second, the nation has divided leadership in space acquisition decision-making that results in the slow evolution of the status quo.8

Hyten also stated he strongly believes the Intelligence Community and DOD should have separate space programs. To address these difficulties, Hyten made ten recommendations, summarized here.9

1. Eliminate the Defense Space Council and all other space oversight responsibilities currently spread throughout DOD. In their place, create a national security space Executive Committee to provide broad strategic guidance to a National Security Space Senior Steering Group co-chaired by the director of the National Reconnaissance Office (ideally dual-hatted as the under secretary of the Air Force) and the Air Force Space Command commander. Committee members would be the DepSecDef, the principal deputy director of National Intelligence and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The committee would be advised by the STRATCOM commander, the under secretary of defense for Acquisition and the Air Force chief of staff.

2. Normalize space functions within the DOD by formally designating the Air Force as lead service for all DOD space requirements allocation, architecture decisions, resourcing requests and acquisition activities.

3. Streamline programmatic authorities and responsibilities for space forces by designating the under secretary of Defense for Acquisition as the Defense Acquisition Executive with oversight authority for existing defense space programs. Clarify that planning authority for new space systems resides in AFSPC for DOD and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) for the Intelligence Community.

4. Designate AFSPC as:

a. The organize, train, equip, and acquire authority for Defense space and ground control segments [comparable to the NRO] to include:

  • Major Force Program-12 (MFP-12) (Defense Only) authority.
  • Authority to initiate, fund and terminate Defense space programs at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and the yet-to-be created Air Force Rapid Space Capabilities Office (AFRSCO) (see Hyten’s recommendation 7).
  • Authority to designate the Program Office Directors for Defense space programs in consultation with the SMC commander (Space Program Executive Officer (PEO)) and AFRSCO commander (AFRSCO PEO) [comparable to the NRO].
  • Sole authority to coordinate commercial business arrangements (e.g., leases) for Defense space services [comparable to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency for commercial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.].
  • Service Acquisition Executive (SAE) authority over Defense space acquisitions [comparable to U.S. Special Operations Command].
  • Maintain the SMC commander as part of AFSPC and the PEO for Space.
  • Have the AFSPC commander report directly to the Defense Acquisition Executive for defense space acquisitions [comparable to the Missile Defense Agency].
  • Consider a minimum tour length for the AFSPC commander to be five years [comparable to Naval Nuclear Propulsion and Navy Strategic Systems].

b. The single authority to act as enterprise-wide Defense system architect and integrator for the overall space architecture. Although AFSPC currently has a small number of other service personnel assigned, the organization described above would likely require additional joint personnel involvement to ensure other service requirements are adequately addressed. Since nearly all the acquisition programs are Air Force, Hyten does not believe this needs to be a joint command, but additional joint manpower, in addition to those already in place, should be added to AFSPC.

5. Designate all services and defense agencies as organize, train, equip and acquire authorities for their forces’ user terminals. The EXCOM would need to review resourcing decisions to ensure this segment remains synchronized with the rest of the enterprise space architecture.

6. Assign the AFSPC commander as the Joint Force Space Component Commander under STRATCOM to properly align operational space under a combatant command. This step happened in December 2017.10

7. Create an Air Force Rapid Space Capabilities Office as a direct report to the AFSPC commander. Its mission would be to quickly design and acquire major, new, affordable space capabilities. Initially, elements of the Space Security and Defense Program, Operationally Responsive Space Program Office and the current Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office would make up this office.

8. Affirm the STRATCOM commander as the single combatant command for space and designate him or her as executive agent for space requirements in Joint Requirements Oversight Council deliberations. Leave intact the approval role of the JROC for space requirements. Also assign the STRATCOM commander the role of coordinating authority for space.

9. Affirm the NRO director as the single organize, train and equip authority for the Intelligence Community space and ground control segments.

10. Eliminate the Principal Deputy Space Advisor position (previously known as the DOD Executive Agent for Space) and PDSA Staff (the Secretary of the Air Force is currently the PDSA and has a PDSA staff of joint personnel). The AFSPC commander should establish a Washington liaison office directed by a new deputy commander to work issues inside Washington, D.C., in a similar manner to the vice commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson announced in January 2018 that she intends to make the deputy AFSPC commander a three-star general and move the position to the Pentagon.11

Hyten’s recommendations clearly have been heard by Congress with several of them reflected in the 2018 NDAA. Specifically, the 2018 NDAA:12

  • Terminates the Defense Space Council.
  • Designates the AFSPC commander, subject to the direction of the secretary of the Air Force, as the service acquisition executive for defense space acquisitions.
  • Directs the DepSecDef to conduct a review and identify a recommended organizational and management structure for the national security space components of the DOD.
  • States the AFSPC commander, in consultation with the DOD chief information officer, will be the sole authority for the procurement of commercial satellite communication services for the DOD.
  • Appoints the AFSPC commander to a term of six years.
  • Re-designates the Operationally Responsive Space Program Office to the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, reporting to the AFSPC commander.
  • Terminates the PDSA position. The duties, responsibilities and personnel of the PDSA office are transferred to a single official selected by the DepSecDef, who cannot be the secretary of the Air Force or the under secretary of Defense for Intelligence.

These moves will generate concerns for the Army. The termination of the Defense Space Council makes it imperative the DepSecDef identify an organizational and management structure for DOD space that provides the Army an appropriate voice in DOD space acquisition. Additionally, with the AFSPC commander (in consultation with the DOD chief information officer) being the sole authority for the procurement of commercial SATCOM services for the DOD, the Army, as the largest user of space capabilities in DOD, will need the means to ensure its requirements are meet.

If the Congress and DepSecDef follow Hyten’s other recommendations, the Army will have additional concerns.

  • It will be critical for the Army to be able to advise the Executive Committee, given its membership consisting of the DepSecDef, principal deputy director of National Intelligence and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Will Army and Navy needs be equitably considered if the EXCOM is advised only by STRATCOM’s commander, the under secretary of Defense for Acquisition and the Air Force chief of staff?
  • Could the Army be required to transfer responsibility for the Wideband SATCOM Operations Centers to the Air Force if AFSPC is the organize, train, equip and acquire authority for all Defense space and ground control segments, to include MFP-12 authority and sole authority to coordinate commercial leases for Defense space services? Would there be an impact on leases for space services the Army relies on?
  • Would the Army need to assign additional personnel to AFSPC to ensure Army requirements are adequately addressed with AFSPC as the enterprise-wide Defense system architect and integrator for the overall space architecture?

As Congress and the DepSecDef ponder future changes to DOD space organization, the Army will need to remain vigilant to ensure current and future warfighting capabilities of the land component are appropriately supported by space capabilities developed by the Air Force. For example, changes to the Global Positioning System signal can require a significant investment on the part of the Army to update a multitude of Army systems that use either timing or positioning data.

Additionally, future Army communications architectures need to be synchronized with the future satellite constellations to ensure enough bandwidth is available in the appropriate frequencies and that Army ground terminals are compatible with the broadcast waveforms.

Overall, changes in DOD space organization can bring value to the nation, but those changes will need to be fully coordinated with the Army to avoid generating negative impacts to ground forces.

Author: Gary Shugart is a space plans specialist at U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command.

U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command, “The Army’s Dependence on Space,” STAND TO! Feb. 23, 2017,

2 National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, H.R. 2810, 115th Congress, 1st sess., 439.

3 Department of Defense, Interim Report on Organizational and Management Structure for the National Security Space Components of the Department of Defense (Washington: March 1, 2018), 5-6,

4 Ibid., 8.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 10.

U.S. House of Representatives, “Thoughts on National Security Space Organization, General John E. Hyten, Commander, United States Strategic Command” (Washington: House Committee on Armed Services, Subcommittee on Strategic Forces), 115th Congress, 1st sess., Jan.11, 2017, 1.

8 Ibid., 4.

9 Ibid., 5-8.

10 Air Force Space Command Public Affairs, “AFSPC Commander Becomes JFSCC, Joint Space Forces Restructure,” Dec. 3, 2017,

11 Sandra Erwin, “Air Force to Create Three-Star ‘Vice Commander’ Post to Manage Space Activities,” Space News, Jan. 16, 2018,

12 National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, H.R. 2810, 115th Congress, 1st session, 436-8.



Solving Sensor Dilemmas

History-making Army satellite: 10 years later

By John London and Mark Ray

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Unattended ground sensors have been used by the U.S. military in various forms for more than 50 years for remote detection of enemy activity. For example, ground sensors are placed to detect enemy motion or sounds, such as digging to place improvised explosive devices.

These sensors generally have to trade-off competing requirements. They typically need a line of sight to transmit their data to a friendly ground receiving station which can expose forward-deployed forces during sensor emplacement and operations, or they require higher power and larger antenna to reach a satellite which can expose the sensor to discovery and defeat.

Ten years ago in April 2008, Lt. Gen. Kevin Campbell, then-commanding general of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command (USASMDC/ARSTRAT) saw an opportunity to demonstrate a solution to this dilemma. Small satellites in Low Earth Orbit could retrieve the data directly from the sensors without exposing forward forces, maintain the covert nature of the sensors and reduce the power and size requirements levied on the sensor.

Campbell directed the development of eight flight-capable nanosatellites within 12 months. That feat was accomplished in April 2009 with the delivery of eight satellites by the Miltec Corp.

In Orbit After 50 Years

On Dec. 8, 2010, USASMDC/ARSTRAT orbited and successfully operated the Army’s first satellite in more than 50 years, a 4-kilogram 3U nanosatellite about the size of a loaf of bread dubbed the Space and Missile Defense Command-Operational Nanosatellite Effect (SMDC-ONE). This nanosatellite demonstrated the viability of Army smallsats for communications relay and data exfiltration from unattended ground sensors and ended the long drought of Army satellite development efforts.

Limited demonstrations were conducted in orbit where data from an unattended ground sensor were collected, transmitted to the cube satellite through a NEXUS gateway and then relayed to a ground station.

Since the SMDC-ONE launch in 2010, 11 additional USASMDC/ARSTRAT smallsats have flown to Low Earth Orbit with varying designs for multiple missions, the majority focused on testing and demonstrating communications capabilities for the Army Warfighter.

After the first SMDC-ONE mission in 2010, USASMDC/ARSTRAT progressively developed and matured smallsat technologies, including three orbiting smallsats designated as the SMDC Nanosatellite Program-3 (SNaP-3). The SNaP-3 satellites were developed in partnership with the Office of the Secretary of Defense Joint Capability Technology Demonstration Program.

The most complex mission to date and the Army’s largest satellite since COURIER 1B in 1960 is an imaging satellite called Kestrel Eye that was launched in August 2017. Kestrel Eye was deployed from the International Space Station by astronaut Mark Vande Hei, a retired Army colonel. This satellite has a mass of around 50 kilograms including an optical payload to provide digital imagery at about 1.5 meter ground sample distance.

Kestrel Eye’s ambitious goal is providing imagery to the lowest tactical level at unprecedented speed. USASMDC/ARSTRAT also is developing technologies in advanced communications and other applications for the benefit of the ground tactical Warfighter.

Smallsat Paradigm

The U.S. Army has been heavily dependent on military and commercial space systems for communications, command and control, reconnaissance and weather information since the 1970s. In more recent years, the Department of Defense (DOD) uses satellite communications to support a variety of critical mission needs, from unmanned aerial vehicles and intelligence to voice and data for military personnel.

According to a Government Accountability Office report, “In fiscal year 2011, the most recent information available, the DOD spent over $1 billion leasing commercial SATCOM.” The report indicated “. . . DOD demand for SATCOM is growing, but expected capacity will remain flat, suggesting military capability will need to be significantly supplemented with commercial SATCOM in the future.”

Smallsats such as SMDC-ONE began as a university teaching tool in 1999. Universities, small companies and even countries without traditional space programs suddenly had the ability to build and launch science experiments and technology demonstrations on a budget.

What began very humbly has blossomed into a niche space market within the traditional space community. SpaceWorks Enterprises, Inc., estimates approximately 125 smallsats are scheduled for launch each year and nearly 2,400 will require launch through 2023.

Small satellites like SMDC-ONE and SNaP-3 operating in Low Earth Orbit may be harbingers of a new paradigm where smallsats augment and supplement traditional SATCOM architectures and thereby reduce the burden and decrease the cost for the Department of Defense. Kestrel Eye likewise represents another option to provide tactical imagery to the Warfighter, to supplement existing commercial and government imagery systems.

USASMDC/ARSTRAT is working to a space technology roadmap which includes development of Earth-sensing and advanced communications small satellites. Consequently, current programmatic goals for USASMDC/ARSTRAT include developing global communications coverage for the warfighter, enabling near real-time low resolution imagery collection and dissemination, and finding new and innovative ways to implement space applications and technologies that offer enhanced or new capabilities to the warfighter.

In the ten short years since the announcement of the SMDC-ONE satellite initiative by Campbell, USASMDC/ARSTRAT has put in place an active program of satellite technology development that holds great promise for providing low-cost, responsive data from space to the Army of the future.

Authors: John London is the chief engineer and Mark Ray is an electronics engineer in the Space and Strategic Systems Directorate in the Technical Center of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command.

United States Government Accountability Office, Defense Satellite Communications: DOD Needs Additional Information to Improve Procurements (Washington: GAO-15-459, July 2015), under “Why GAO Did This Study,”

Ibid., 12.

SpaceWorks Enterprises, Inc., 2018 Nano/Microsatellite Market Forecast, 8th ed. (Atlanta: 2018), 8, 2018.pdf.

At What Cost?

Leveraging emerging small satellite constellations

By Maj. Bradley Townsend

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Recent news coverage is full of reports of plans for commercial satellite communications (COMSATCOM) capabilities that will revolutionize the industry. Many of these plans rely on using constellations of Low Earth Orbit satellites that leverage recent breakthroughs in small satellites combined with advances in the launch industry that are making possible having hundreds or even thousands of small satellites aloft.

The potential impact on military operations of these new constellations is sizable. They may offer easy mobile access to reliable, low-latency and high-bandwidth communications.

The challenge for the U.S. military space community will be in overcoming its traditional reliance on military satellite communications (MILSATCOM) and a troubled history with COMSATCOM acquisition. It is worth looking back at this history to judge how successful the military may be in maximizing opportunities presented by emerging developments in the commercial market.

The only existing smallsat constellation is owned by mobile satellite communications company Iridium which has long supplied the U.S. military, but even with an updated constellation of satellites it offers only a hint at the capabilities that may be available in the near future.

Early Bird

The first commercial communications satellite, Early Bird, was launched in April 1965 by the International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium (INTELSAT). INTELSAT emerged from the Communications Satellite Corp. (COMSAT) which was established by Congress in the Communications Satellite Act in August 1962.

At the time, the Department of Defense was attempting to build its own satellite communications constellation. Called Advent, this program was a joint project where the Army would manage the payload while the Air Force “flew” the satellite itself, the origin of the 53rd Signal Battalion’s current role. In a foreshadowing of many future military space programs, the Advent program was significantly over budget and behind schedule when then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara cancelled it.

McNamara saw the creation of COMSAT Corp. as an opportunity and opened discussions with the newly formed company to lease bandwidth from it at lower cost than Advent. This was an ambitious goal. COMSAT had not yet founded INTELSAT or launched its first satellite.

The DOD and COMSAT could not agree on costs or the need for dedicated military transponders aboard COMSAT’s satellites. In July 1964 McNamara ended negotiations with COMSAT and opted for development of a new dedicated military satellite constellation under the direction of the Air Force, the Initial Defense Communications Satellite Program.

From that point until the first Gulf War in 1991, military satellite communications needs largely were fulfilled by the MILSATCOM constellation. That MILSATCOM could do this was primarily the result of timing.

The Vietnam War ended before the U.S. military had a significant dependence on satellite-communications capabilities. Peacetime usage did not stress the available bandwidth to a point that required the purchase of commercial bandwidth. This changed with Operation Desert Storm, when demand spiked and satellites carried more than 80 percent of all communications. This percentage was achieved despite demand exceeding supply in both bandwidth and satellite ground equipment.

Gulf War Growth

Commercial SATCOM played a substantial role in the communications architecture of the Gulf War. Just prior to the start of the conflict the total bandwidth usage in the U.S. Central Command area of operations was 4.54 Mbps. This was entirely provided by MILSATCOM.

Within the first month all MILSATCOM bandwidth available in the theater was consumed, and the DOD was forced to transfer satellites from other global locations and adopt other extreme measures to support the growth. At the height of the conflict, demand increased to 67.65 Mbps carried over MILSATCOM and 31.39 Mbps on COMSATCOM for a total of 99.04 Mbps.

Commercial SATCOM, provided entirely by INTELSAT, carried 31.6 percent of military satellite traffic and nearly 20 percent of all traffic in the entire theater. Interestingly, the military relied on COMSAT-founded INTELSAT to carry the majority of data transmitted to the continental United States because INTELSAT had both the constellation of satellites and the ground-transfer stations to support the effort, whereas the military did not.

Air Force Space Command, in a review of lessons learned from the conflict, identified that communications plans had underestimated the level of demand and recommended that DOD acquire more satellites to support future operations. Nowhere in the lessons-learned document was using COMSATCOM as a backup mentioned as an alternative.

Desert Storm set a benchmark for SATCOM usage, averaging 140 bps per deployed soldier. Future conflicts saw further growth. In Kosovo in 1999 average usage was 3,000 bps per soldier. It reached 8,300 bps per soldier in the opening days of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and a further 13,800 bps per soldier by 2004 in Operation Iraqi Freedom.10  Total bandwidth used in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq was 3.2 Gbps compared to the 99 Mbps used for a force more than twice as large in Desert Storm.11 


This exponential growth in SATCOM usage came at a cost to the U.S. government and drove an evolution in how COMSATCOM was acquired (see table 1 for growth in COMSATCOM demand since 2000).

Table 1: DOD Fixed Satellite Service Bandwidth Cost and Usage (excludes MSS)

Source: Department of Defense, “Satellite Communications Strategy Report” in Response to Senate Report 113-44 to Accompany S.1197 National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (Washington: Office of the Chief Information Officer, Aug. 14, 2014).

The sudden increase in the operations tempo and associated demand for satellite bandwidth created a free-for-all in acquiring COMSATCOM bandwidth to meet the surge. After Desert Storm ended, DOD mandated that the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) would manage acquisition for commercial bandwidth.12 

DISA did so in accordance with federal regulations and standards, but the process was slow and demand was immediate. Users of DOD commercial-satellite services were dissatisfied with DISA, claiming that it was too slow for military operations and too expensive.13  Many users circumvented DISA. The General Accounting Office (GAO) in 2003 estimated that at least 20 percent of DOD’s purchased bandwidth was acquired without going through DISA.14  A 2015 GAO report raised this estimate to 55 percent.15 

Table 2: Percentage of DOD Fixed Satellite Services Acquired by DISA, 2003-2012

Source: United States Government Accountability Office, Defense Satellite Communications: DOD Needs Additional Information to Improve Procurements (Washington: GAO-15-459, July 2015).

DISA has refined COMSATCOM acquisition procedures over the last 20 years in an effort to lower costs, improve contract usage rates and meet growing demand. Today the DOD acquires most of its COMSATCOM from DISA primarily using the Future Commercial Satellite Communications Services Acquisition (FCSA) contract model and its subcontracts, Custom SATCOM Solutions 2 (CS2) and CS3.

The CS2 contract was valued at $3.4 billion and had a three-year base period with two one-year options. Its successor contract, CS3, extends the base period to five years with one-year options for five more years and a $2.5 billion ceiling for that extended window.16  A successful bidder on CS3 must “provide the COMSATCOM system engineering design, configuration, installation, implementation, training, and on-going maintenance and operational support necessary to deliver a COMSATCOM complex solution.”17 

The General Services Administration, in its request for proposals, allowed the solution to possibly include a combination of fixed and mobile services and components. This flexibility may allow future small satellite data providers to compete successfully with a hybrid solution. The adoption of emerging technology, however, may be limited by the success that the GSA and DISA have had under FCSA in extending contracting authority for longer base periods in order to lower cost.

CS2 was limited to a maximum five-year period as a result of Pentagon and congressional pressure. Since indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contracts under FCSA do not allow for new providers during the base period, and the Pentagon did not want to miss opportunities to adopt new technology at the five-year mark, it limited CS2 to a maximum of five years.18 

The 10-year period of performance under CS3 allows for reduced costs but will preclude the acquisition of any emerging technologies during this period. Since this timeframe likely covers the initial launch and adoption of many proposed small satellite constellations, the CS3 contract represents a savings on existing COMSATCOM but is an obstacle to the adoption of new technology.

Emerging Technologies

The partial centralization of COMSATCOM purchases within DISA and GSA will harm the adoption of emerging technologies because much of the cost savings achieved is through discounts based on volume and length of contract. The CS3 contract length of 10 years, when options are included, is a deliberate tradeoff by the DOD for cost savings in exchange for the ability to adopt new technologies.

Because the CS3 contract includes options for complex solutions using a hybrid of mobile satellite services and fixed satellite services, it will tie up budget resources that could be applied to new small satellite data constellations as they will likely be treated more as mobile than fixed type services.19 

The inability of the CS3 contract vehicle to provide an avenue for the adoption of emerging technologies during the contract period will prevent the DOD from being an early adopter of small satellite data constellations. DISA attempted to develop a method for adding new providers to the contract during the development of the CS2 contract vehicle but found no way to do it under the indefinite model of CS2. These limitations likely will not change for CS3.20 

Limited services were included under IT Schedule 70 in the CS2 contract, which does allow for the addition of new capabilities during a contract lifecycle, but it is typically limited to purchases of less than $550,000.21  For example, a representative contract between GSA and COMSAT Corp. includes a maximum purchase limit of $500,000 for various COMSAT hardware.22 

This schedule will allow experimentation with new hardware as it is introduced if the providers of these capabilities choose to apply to the schedule process, or third parties operating outside the DISA/GSA process acquire their services directly. These limited opportunities will be the only option during the CS3 contract period for demonstrations of the new emerging data constellations’ usefulness.

Technological Obstacles

Beyond contracting issues there are technological obstacles to the adoption of emerging satellite technologies. In a 2014 report, the DOD identified three conditions under which commercial services are acquired: when military bandwidth was unavailable; when user demand exceeded military capability; or when user ground terminals were incompatible with MILSATCOM.23 

The technology aspects of this problem are interrelated. Incompatible ground terminals are the result of the DOD’s resistance to adopting technology compatible with commercial standards. Therefore, when users need SATCOM bandwidth for immediate operational purposes, they also are forced to acquire a compatible ground system at substantial cost which encourages the user to remain on commercial bandwidth, both to recoup the investment in ground hardware and to ensure against future MILSATCOM bandwidth availability limitations. This creats a self-reinforcing cycle where large bandwidth users, such as unmanned aerial vehicle systems, have to rely on COMSATCOM in order to ensure availability of the necessary SATCOM.

The challenges associated with moving between MILSATCOM and COMSATCOM is something the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center is addressing. SMC released a request for information in 2016 as part of a congressionally mandated Pathfinder program to develop a ground terminal with the ability to adapt to existing providers’ needs.24 

This universal ground terminal would blur the lines between COMSATCOM and MILSATCOM, allowing the differences to be immaterial to the user, possibly solving the user-driven technical separation between the two. A universal ground terminal represents a significant technical challenge and one that the DOD also will have to address if it ever hopes to resolve the issues associated with U.S. military reliance on COMSATCOM.

Dependence on COMSATCOM is a fact within the Department of Defense. DOD will never again be able to rely solely on MILSATCOM to meet its needs. Despite this, a history of troubled acquisition policies and chaotic decentralized purchasing does not bode well for the military’s ability to fully leverage emerging COMSATCOM capabilities.

With CS3, DISA has achieved cost savings at the expense of flexibility. The ability to leverage the additional capabilities provided by emerging technologies in the commercial sector represents a flexible strategic reserve that should be fully embraced by DOD, DISA and the acquisition enterprise.

Author: Maj. Bradley Townsend is a future plans officer in Operation Resolute Support and an Army space operations officer.

David J. Whalen, “Communications Satellites: Making the Global Village Possible,” NASA History Division,
Communications Satellite Act of 1962, Public Law 87-624, 87th Cong. (Aug. 31, 1962), sec. 305(a).
David N. Spires and Rick W. Sturdevant, “From Advent to Milstar: The United States Air Force and the Challenges of Military Satellite Communications,” in Beyond the Ionosphere: The Development of Satellite Communications, ed. Andrew J. Butrica (Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1997),
Air Force Space Command, “Desert Storm ‘Hot Wash,’” July 12-13, 1991, 3,
Edward Bedrosian, Edison Cesar, John R. Clark, G. K. Huth, Katherine M. Poehlmann and Philip Propper, Tactical Satellite Orbital Simulation and Requirements Study (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, report N-3568-A, 1993),, 9.
Ibid., 9-10.
Ibid., 1,8.
Benjamin D. Forest, “An Analysis of Military Use of Commercial Satellite Communications” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, September 2008), 10,
10 Greg Berlocher, “Military Continues to Influence Commercial Operators,” Satellite Today, Sept. 1, 2008,
11 “Satellite Bandwidth,” Global,
12 United States General Accounting Office, Satellite Communications: Strategic Approach Needed for DOD’s Procurement of Commercial Satellite Bandwidth (Washington: GAO-04-206, December 2003), 3,
13 Ibid., 2.
14 Ibid.
15 United States Government Accountability Office, Defense Satellite Communications: DOD Needs Additional Information to Improve Procurement (Washington: GAO-15-459, July 2015), 9,
16 Billy Mitchell, “GSA Issues $2.5 Billion Satellite Comms Follow-on Contract,” FedScoop, Jan. 4, 2016,
17 General Services Administration, “Complex Commercial Satellite Communications (SATCOM) Solutions (CS3),” Solicitation QTA0015SDA4003, Dec.29, 2015,
18 Sami Lais, “DISA, GSA Lay Out SATCOM Buying Strategy,” Defense Systems, April 12, 2010,
19 General Services Administration, “Complex Commercial Satellite Communications (SATCOM) Solutions (CS3).”
20 Lais.
21 General Services Administration, “GSA Schedules Frequently Asked Questions,”
22 General Services Administration, “Federal Supply Service Pricelist, Contract GS-35F-0122X with COMSAT Inc.,” Sept. 13, 2016.
23 Department of Defense, Satellite Communications Strategy Report: In Response to Senate Report 113-44, 8-9.
24 Air Force Space Command, “Pathfinder 3 Request for Information: Solicitation Number 16-076,” May 20, 2016.