Staying on the Path

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Hunter Buley with Marine Wing Communications Squadron 18 adjusts a radio terminal’s trajectory during a September exercise at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. The military is currently weighing commercial and government-owned solutions for meeting future wideband communications needs, and hoping the Pathfinder series of projects will help inform their decisions. Credit: Lance Cpl. Makenzie Fallon/USMC

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Hunter Buley with Marine Wing Communications Squadron 18 adjusts a radio terminal’s trajectory during a September exercise at Andersen
Air Force Base in Guam. The military is currently weighing commercial and government-owned solutions for meeting future wideband communications needs, and hoping the Pathfinder series of projects will help inform their decisions. Credit: Lance Cpl. Makenzie Fallon/USMC

U.S. military presses ahead with satcom Pathfinder program

The U.S. Air Force is moving ahead with the next step in its Pathfinder satellite communications demo effort – despite the current step hitting major legal issues.

The service posted a Request for Information Oct. 27 for the third part of its series of experimental bandwidth contracts designed to inform how it purchases satellite-communications in the future.

The five planned Pathfinder projects were intended as a series of contracts that would build upon the success of the previous contracts. Pathfinder 3 is designed to test the pre-launch purchase of a commercial satellite transponder for communications outside the continental United States.

But its predecessor, Pathfinder 2, is on hold while the Department of Defense wrestles with legal questions about whether current appropriations law allows the Air Force to barter for the services it needs.

Pathfinder 2 calls for the Air Force to purchase a transponder from a satellite fleet operator, then parlay that purchase into access to the operator’s entire constellation.

The intent is to give the Air Force a transponder’s worth of bandwidth wherever and whenever it needs it, rather than limiting the service to the geographic coverage area of a specific satellite hosting the leased transponder.

But questions arose as to whether bartering the transponder purchase into a wider use of an existing network was a legal use of the acquisition dollars the Air Force intends to use.

The Air Force Space and Missile  Systems Center (SMC), which leads Pathfinder, doesn’t see the new sequence as a big problem.

“Although the Pathfinder series of efforts are intended to build on one another, they are not strictly dependent on the preceding project, therefore SMC does not anticipate any issues,” said a statement from SMC commander Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves e-mailed to SpaceNews.

Congress would seem to agree. The National Defense Authorization Act – which both the House and the Senate are set to wrap up this month – includes a roughly $30 million appropriation for Pathfinder 3 as part of the Pentagon’s efforts to modernize military satellite communications.

Those modernizing efforts include not just Pathfinder 3, but also the launch of the eighth Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellite scheduled at press time for Dec. 7. And experts in the Air Force and other branches are set to start meeting and conducting a yearlong Wideband Analysis of Alternatives to explore commercial and government-owned options for what comes after the 10-satellite WGS system the Air Force expects to finish deploying in 2019.

Pathfinder 3 will also be the first step in the series to start assessing whether the Air Force needs to buy satellite ground services from the same companies providing the in-orbit services.

The RFI closed Nov. 18, and acquisition officials are presumably returning from the Thanksgiving holiday to analyze indsutry’s submissions.

Meanwhile, Pathfinder 2 is being reviewed by Pentagon legal experts. The Air Force posted the RFI for it in June 2014 and planned to award a contract this past summer. As 2016 comes to a close, it has not yet selected a winner, or indicated that an announcement will be made soon.

The delay is something that concerns Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, the senior vice president for government strategy and policy at Inmarsat’s U.S. Government Business Unit.

“Speed is definitely not something that we’re seeing,” she told SpaceNews. “Pathfinders, in general, are not supposed to solve yesterday’s problems.”

But she believes the lessons learned from Pathfinder 2’s legal troubles could aid in future programs, helping resolve “some of the obstacles or barriers or impediments, and rolling those lessons into the next opportunity,” she said.

“I’m less concerned about not completing Pathfinder 2 before going into Pathfinder 3 than I am interested in the outcome of exploring new relationships and business models that are going to be agile,” Cowen-Hirsch said.

The program could be an opportunity to bring the Pentagon and industry into closer cooperation on communications projects, she said.

“Don’t view milsat as an entity unto itself and commercial satcom as an entity unto itself,” Cowen-Hirsch said.

Myland Pride, the director of legislative and government affairs for Intelsat General Corp., and a 25-year Air Force veteran, agreed, saying there’s a great possibility for partnership between industry and the federal government.

“Our industry believes there needs to be a greater emphasis on commercial capability, for a variety of reasons — from affordability to resilience to flexibility in architecture both space based and terrestrial,” he said, adding that government agencies “almost don’t need to be in that business any more.”

“We’re not talking about protected nuclear command-and-control communications,” he said. “Those are clearly in the realm of government. But for wideband, we believe there’s a much greater role for commercial.”

Some of the Pentagon’s acquisition culture, however, is a “difficult ship to change course,” Pride said.

“It’s hard to change those paradigms,” he said. “When you’re used to owning stuff, it’s difficult to not own stuff.”

The Pathfinder effort is supposed to help change some of that rigid culture, and Pride said he believes DoD will have learned from the legal issues of Pathfinder 2.

“We know [what] some of the hurdles are, so I think [DoD] will be more proactive with Pathfinder 3,” he said.

Still, Pride said there was hope that more of the Pathfinder project would have been completed before the Pentagon started its Wideband Analysis of Alternatives.

“It’s a little disappointing because we wanted to get at least one or two of these Pathfinders under our belt before the Wideband Analysis of Alternatives was well under way,” he said. “We may get Pathfinder 2 on contract by then, but there are some other concepts that we thought we were going to accelerate in Pathfinder 2 — specifically, pooled portable bandwidth, those sorts of contracts, some integration of ground activities, some enterprise level work — but it just got derailed.”

SMC and commercial fleet operators are banking on Pathfinder to show DoD how to break with traditional acquisition strategies that many critics say are slow and outdated.

The project has also given SMC the opportunity to directly control purchasing of satcom services, something that’s normally handled by the Defense Information Systems Agency.