Clare A. Grason, satcom division chief, Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA). Credit: DISA

MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — The U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), which is about to move under U.S. Air Force Space Command jurisdiction, may be ready for a long-argued reform that would scrap the use of contract price as the prime selection criterion, the agency’s satcom division chief said.

Clare Grason’s DISA portfolio includes $550 million in annual satellite bandwidth-lease contracts, mainly short-term, in addition to a multi-year contract for narrowband services from Iridium Communications. DISA’s total contract volume is $4.5 billion, she said.

The U.S. military’s way of purchasing satellite telecommunications from the commercial sector has been roundly criticized as as inefficient for just about as long as it has existed.

That was true here Oct. 10 during a discussion at Satellite Innovation 2018, organized by Satnews, which featured calls for deep change in DoD space-asset acquisition coupled with reminders that contract management reform is not DoD’s strong suit.

“I wrote a book on streamlining acquisitions in 1994,” said Douglass L. Loverro, president of Loverro Consulting and a former Deputy Assistance Secretary of Defense for Space Policy. “We have been trying to reform the acquisition process continuously. And we are no closer to the solution today.”

Grason did not dispute that record, but said there is reason to hope that commercial satcom procurement may be ready for change in light of the fast-fast-paced New Space movement of startup space-technology companies.

“We’re at a point where we can transform the acquisition model to facilitate an integrated enterprise environment,” Grason said. “We do that by bringing in some of the approaches that have long existed in the fiber-optic market, such as leveraging indefeasible right-of-use agreements and other creative acquisition capability that the Federal Acquisition Regulation enables today.”

The first problem she addressed is DISA’s move in recent years toward awarding contracts on a Lowest-Price, Technically Acceptable (LPTA) basis. This makes it easier for the Defense Department to defend against contract-award challenges — pointing to lowest cost — but also means the military is not getting the best possible technology.

“The DoD is almost exclusively evaluating price, and not any of the other value propositions your companies are presenting or able to provide,” Grason said. “There is simply no margin for innovation.”

She said moving away from purchase commercial satcom in a disaggregated way would enable the military to take lessons learned from fiber-capacity purchases, which are for many years and future “conditions [that] facilitate introduction of new capability as it emerges from both large and small producers.”

DISA, Grason said, has produced a “Best Value Tradeoff Playbook” that seeks industry input on what evaluation criteria should be beyond price. In addition, the agency is about to start issuing draft RFPs, and not the usual RFIs, which are vaguely written.

“A draft RFP enables the government to present to industry, on a preliminary basis, what we’re looking for in a set of criteria, and how we’re defining our requirement. It gives industry an opportunity to opine on how we might refine the materials to result in better capability.”

Doug Hendrix, chief executive, ExoAnalytic Solutions Inc. Credit: ExoAnalytic Solutions

Doug Hendrix, chief executive of ExoAnalytic Solutions Inc., which provides space situational awareness data, agreed that government procurement officers are at sea in measuring competing bids for complex technologies.

“It’s not possible to place a value judgment on 10 times as accurate versus 10 times as persistent versus cheap,” Hendrix said. “And so they almost always end up with the wrong one. [Proposals] either meet the requirements they don’t.”

Fred Kennedy, director of the tactical technology office at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), said the flow of investment into New Space ventures in recent years won’t last forever, making it urgent that government procurement practices act before the investment climate changes.

Kennedy specifically cited the mega-constellations of low-orbiting broadband satellites that he said DoD should use as part of a wide variety of space-based assets whose diversity and number would complicate any attempted attack.

It is not clear whether any of the these mega-constellations will be built. Each costs several billion dollars. The arrival of the U.S. military as a guaranteed future customer would be the kind of support that could pull at least one of them over the finish line.

“I think we have a very short window to do that,” Kennedy said. “I am concerned that at some point investors will get less interested.”

Loverro agreed that one or more of the mega constellations would be ideal as one element of a basket of satcom capabilities.

“It may be that if I put all my DoD backbone into LEO constellation X — OneWeb, SpaceX, whatever — and put every bit of satcom to every warfighter on that constellation, it would be a pretty big cyber target and some nation’s going to take it down — unquestionably.

“But if I have created a network where I am transparent about whether it’s OneWeb or SpaceX or Telesat or the 20 other LEO constellations, plus GEO constellations as a backup plus the backbone of [DoD-owned] milsatcom, the adversary doesn’t know where to go.”