DoD procurement of space tech is evolving, but pace of change is slow

By Sndra Erwin,
Published by SpaceNews, 8 February 2023

There is “natural latency” in the procurement system that is going to slow down adoption of commercial technologies

WASHINGTON — Top leaders of the Defense Department and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have called for greater adoption of commercial space technologies  and services but it could take years for these directives to trickle down from the top, government and industry officials said Feb. 8.

There is a major push at high levels of the Pentagon to change the procurement culture, including efforts by the Space Force to use commercial services instead of building satellites in-house. 

“But this change is not just something that’s going to happen overnight,” Lt. Col. Nicholas Estep, program manager at the Defense Innovation Unit, said during a panel discussion at the SmallSat Symposium in Mountain View, California, 

DIU is a defense agency created to build ties with commercial industry in areas like space, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. One of its most ambitious projects is a hybrid space architecture integrating satellite communications systems across low, medium and geostationary orbits.

Military buyers are enthusiastic about leveraging the innovation coming out of the space industry but there is “natural latency” in the procurement system that is going to slow down adoption of commercial tech, Estep said, 

“I hear senior leaders all the time talking about how we’re trying to go smaller, faster, cheaper, to leverage the commercial sector as much as possible. We see [legislative] language for accelerated adoption of commercial technology,” he said. 

But DoD is a major bureaucracy so the signals from the top don’t necessarily translate into funding commercial initiatives, he added. The budgeting process alone means it could take three to four years for a proposed idea to become an actual funded program. 

The good news for the industry is that in recent years the government has become “more in tune” with developments in the space sector, Estep said. “So I’d say from the government’s perspective, we need to become better at identifying where we can leverage the commercial investment rather than doing the traditional government acquisition.”

An evolution is taking place at agencies like the Space Systems Command and the Space Development Agency that are buying satellites from commercial vendors not just for experiments but for actual constellations, Estep noted. 

The Space Systems Command, for example, established a commercial services office specifically to take advantage of emerging capabilities from the private sector. 

Jim Faist, advisory board member of Aitech Defense Systems, said the industry has to be careful about not trying to compete with the government. A case in point is satellite-based weather data services, which are provided for free by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Faist also cautioned that DoD is not moving fast enough to change the way it handles companies’ intellectual property. Efforts to buy commercial systems could fail if companies don’t trust the government to protect valuable IP, he said.

DoD should follow NASA model

Michael Maughan, vice president of resilient space missions at Viasat Government Systems, said DoD plays an important role providing seed funding for “exquisite capabilities” that the commercial sector would not invest in.

“But when it comes to commercial services, the government needs to be a smart buyer,” Maughan said. 

DoD and the intelligence community have embraced commercial satellite imagery, for example. But the industry would like to see DoD create a stronger “demand signal” for commercial satellite communications services, Maughan said. 

Viasat is one of six companies NASA selected for its Communications Services Project to begin developing and demonstrating near-Earth space communication services that may support future agency missions.

“NASA is looking to basically stimulate a market in 2030 ahead of where their needs are. And so they’re doing that right now and funding six different companies to do some demonstrations in hopes that in 2030 they’ll have something available,” he said. “I really think DoD could adopt that, and create more of a demand signal for actual commercial services they may need in the future.”

In the satellite communications sector, Maughan said, there is a larger problem outside of DoD’s control, which is the lack of interoperability and common standards. 

Viasat, a commercial satellite broadband provider, has criticized the Federal Communications Commission for allowing rival SpaceX to deploy the massive Starlink constellation without assessing the impact on the low Earth orbit environment. 

Government users of satellite broadband like DoD would benefit from an integrated architecture that takes advantage of satellites in low, medium and geostationary Earth orbits. Proliferated LEO constellations are especially attractive to the military but Viasat argues that the ongoing deployment of mega constellations in LEO could make that region of space unusable in future decades due to congestion and debris. 

“It’s the classic land grab,” he said. “It’s really important that we start thinking about norms around how we ensure that there’s continued sustainable access to that resource in the future so that we don’t inhibit our options in the future, not only in LEO but all orbits.”

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