During the recent SATELLITE 2018 Conference, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion featuring industry and government leaders. We gathered at the session – titled “Adapting the Government-Commercial SATCOM Relationship for the 21st Century” – to explore ideas for creating synergies and establishing collaboration between the government and commercial providers for satellite communications (SATCOM). As the Analysis of Alternatives and other pilot programs continue as a forward-looking means of exploring innovation in acquisition to insert more agility for the end user, the panel wanted to build momentum for a forward-looking, public-private partnership to ensure that relevant business models and innovation are considered first and foremost. We sought to share perspectives about a satellite acquisition and integrated architecture vision that responds to challenges of the present and future, instead of remaining rooted in the distant past.
As I moderated the discussion, I could not help but be encouraged by a number of strong messages that resonated throughout, messages that convey both the struggles and the opportunities before us today:
Open interfaces instead of stovepipes. Open interfaces for SATCOM architecture could dramatically accelerate innovation, allowing industry to swiftly expand capabilities and subscriber bases. They make it easier for the government buyer to know – and understand – what we are doing. As long as both federal and commercial standards for systems align, there is no reason that industry cannot leverage open interfaces to support majority of the Department of Defense (DoD) mission.
Keep up with the pace of the civilian user experience. Today’s soldiers grew up in a world of ubiquitous connectivity. As teenagers, they depended upon cloud-enabled virtual assistants to not only get them to a sporting event on a Friday night, but to buy their tickets for them, for instance. They do not expect this ubiquitous access to end once they put on their military uniforms. They rely upon SATCOM which performs just like their smartphones. If satellite systems fail to deliver a seamless experience with high throughput, they will be forced to make decisions with far less information than they need.
Tell us what your problem is – but not how to solve it. Ultimately, we, the commercial SATCOM industry, are in the problem-solving business, and we want to know all about an agency’s mobility, latency and security issues. But we work at our best when we are not “boxed” into confining contract structures and obsolete, piecemeal and dysfunctional acquisition models. So, DoD leaders, tell us what aspects of SATCOM need to improve. Give us your requirements. Then watch us “tear out a blank sheet of paper” and develop new advancements, and conduct testing to measure how they will hold up under the duress of conflict. With this, we will both gain a better sense of what will work and what will not, and then use this information to increase capabilities.
A pivot in time. Given the current level of activity on the part of the federal government and private industry, we have never seen such a confluence of opportunity in the history of SATCOM. On the industry side, amazing technology breakthroughs – such as high throughput, efficient modems, electronically steerable antennas and low-Earth orbiting satellites – are emerging faster than ever, pushing the envelope further and further to enhance mobility, connectivity, resilience, security and overall capabilities. On the agency side, leadership appears more ready and willing than ever to embrace a larger commercial SATCOM presence, via recapitalization/acquisition overhaul/partnership initiatives. These initiatives include, of course, the U.S. Air Force’s Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) for a follow-on wideband communications system to the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) system, which is well underway (and appears headed for a major policy/progress announcement in May). Unprecedented industry and Allied AoA participation is offering seemingly limitless possibilities of new space, air and ground layer communication capabilities.
We must urge for continued momentum here, so that all of the planning and “talk” leads to tangible and beneficial impact. We need to work in the spirit of a partnership that thinks “commercial first” as a strategic goal. Otherwise, we will stay stuck in the same pattern we have seen over the last decade, one in which industry is viewed as an ad hoc “fill in” option.
Unleash our industry. Of all of the messages, this struck me as a critical, core imperative. Indeed, DoD leaders are already looking to industry to support critical military satellite systems with the best we can bring to the table. Unleash the industry to transform SATCOM with military problems and requirements firmly in mind. Unleash the industry by overhauling a procurement structure that does not result in eternal cycles of information gathering, proposals, protests and implementation – to the point where the technology acquired is outdated as soon as it is deployed. And, finally, unleash the industry to do all of this for the government at literally no cost for the price of innovation – this is part of the R&D budget that we fund for our customers. In other words, this is what we do.
I thoroughly enjoyed the panel discussion, and look forward to continuing the conversation. Every single mission depends upon communications. It is the ultimate force multiplier when established effectively and securely over multiple regions and networks, yet delivered so seamlessly, that the users do not know (or care) who is providing what. We may never exist in a more transcendent moment to support the servicemen and women of the 21st Century, and we cannot afford to allow it to pass, unrealized.
About the author
Rebecca M. Cowen-Hirsch is Senior Vice President for Government Strategy and Policy for Inmarsat Government, based in Washington. Ms. Cowen-Hirsch brings 25 years of defense, aerospace, and executive leadership experience to Inmarsat. As a decorated member of the Senior Executive Service (SES) in the U.S. Department of Defense, she served as the Program Executive Officer for SATCOM, Teleport and Services at the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and in several key SES executive positions including the first Vice Component Acquisition Executive for DISA, with executive management responsibility for the acquisition oversight and horizontal integration of DISA’s products, services, and programs. Ms Cowen-Hirsch established the Defense Spectrum Office, serving as its first Director where her responsibilities included the development of national security spectrum strategic plans and policy, and national and international negotiation of defense spectrum issues. Her broad defense career ranged from systems engineering, experimental flight test, program management, spectrum management, and a wide range of executive leadership positions. Ms. Cowen-Hirsch was a rated experimental flight test engineer; was the first female civilian Mission Commander for the Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft (ARIA) mission, and was the recipient of an Exemplary Service Medal for her years of selfless service to the Department of Defense. Ms Cowen-Hirsch has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering, conducted post-graduate studies in Engineering Management, and is a graduate of the University of Tennessee Space Institute Experimental Flight Test Program; the DoD’s Acquisition Management Program; and the Cambridge Senior Executive Leadership Program.