Lessons Learned from Pathfinder One

Was the Commercial Satellite Communications Pathfinder One a success or failure?*

Peter F. Hoene, President and CEO of SES Government Solutions. Credit: SES Government Solutions

Peter F. Hoene, President and CEO of SES Government Solutions. Credit: SES Government Solutions

A little over a year ago, this was the question posed to senior U.S. government leadership at a U.S. Strategic Command event and the answers varied widely. However, since contract award, the initiative has matured and now can be categorized as an overwhelming success. Pathfinder One demonstrated the feasibility of a new and innovative satellite communications acquisition approach and is supporting critical Department of Defense missions — all at a price and timeline beneficial to the government. Further, Pathfinder One is a great example of how the government can leverage the commercial satellite communications industry to rapidly and affordably provide critical capabilities to our warfighters.

Pathfinder One changed the way the DoD purchased commercial satellite communications capabilities by procuring transponders on a commercial satellite versus the traditional model of leasing bandwidth on the spot market. While commercial satellite services are normally leased using Overseas Contingency Operations or Operations and Maintenance funding, Pathfinder One was executed using procurement dollars. For the first time, the government purchased commercial bandwidth as vital infrastructure instead of a service.

SES Government Solutions was able to engineer a cost-effective, customized Pathfinder One solution that fully satisfied U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) operational requirements and could support evolving requirements as well. This solution included the utilization of inclined satellite capacity, which allowed the government to pay significantly less than traditional station-kept bandwidth. Since remotely piloted aircraft have antennas capable of tracking inclined satellites, AFRICOM — the U.S. combatant command responsible for military operations in 53 African nations — can use Pathfinder One capacity to support MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk operations. In fact, AFRICOM approved the use of inclined capacity on these platforms and is currently using the available Pathfinder One bandwidth to command and control their critical RQ-4 Global Hawk intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions — a significant achievement for operational commercial satellite communications integration.

By working closely with the end user, SES Government Solutions was able to flexibly adapt the Pathfinder One solution to meet evolving requirements without any loss in service or availability. In fact, the service is so reliable that the U.S. government’s Regional SATCOM Support Center Europe recently stated that they are managing the COMSATCOM Pathfinder One bandwidth in exactly the same way and from the very same office that manages the available wideband military satellite communications bandwidth — another commercial satellite communications integration success.

Commercial satellite communications are a critical national security enabler and Pathfinder One has helped shape how the U.S. government can flexibly and affordably acquire these capabilities. Pathfinder One is, in fact, an unequivocal success and has produced ground-breaking lessons learned. SES Government Solutions applauds the DoD for their innovative vision and we look forward to leveraging the Pathfinder One lessons learned for future Pathfinder efforts.

Peter F. Hoene is President and CEO of SES Government Solutions

*SpaceNews asked the U.S. Air Force for an explanation of Pathfinder’s rocky start. Four weeks later, the service provided this reply:

The Air Force is using Pathfinders to test new ways of procuring satellite bandwidth. This particular experiment was to initiate investment versus service based deals. The June 2014 SES Government Solutions contract was for $8.2 million to service a Ku-band need over Africa. Following award, allocated requirements changed. Fortunately, due to a planned satellite transition at Year Two (moving from Eutelsat E16C to the SES NSS-7 satellite), alternative UAV mission needs could be satisfied. With this new requirement, Pathfinder 1 saved approximately $20 million compared to service leasing. Our primary lesson learned from this first pathfinder is COMSATCOM deals should flexibly accommodate mission need changes.

Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves Commander, Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center