Evolved Strategic SATCOM program embracing competition for space and ground segment 

By Courtney Albon / November 23, 2021

As the Space Force’s Evolved Strategic Satellite Communications program moves through the prototyping phase of its space segment and finalizes the ground segment acquisition strategy, Space Systems Command officials say they are leaning forward in their use of competition to drive innovation and reduce cost.

“We’ve always ‘competed’ programs in the past,” Col. Robert Davis, senior materiel leader in Space Systems Command’s strategic systems division told Inside Defense in a recent interview. “We’d have a big source selection and down-select, and that was the provider, right? That was the winner. And they carried on and they did good things for America and delivered capability. But that was kind of the end of competition, very early in the program.”

What’s different about ESS, which will eventually replace the current Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite constellation, is competition is ongoing, Davis said. Last fall, the service awarded contracts to Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin for the program’s rapid prototyping phase, which is slated to continue through the summer of 2025.

This summer the program, which is utilizing Middle-Tier Acquisition authorities, completed formal requirements reviews with each company for their unique designs. Davis said the process of refining requirements drew new ideas from the companies, noting that the competitive environment has resulted in three distinct solutions to address the Space Force’s strategic SATCOM needs.

Lt. Col. Gary Goff, materiel lead for rapid prototyping at SSC, also participated in the interview and noted that as the companies refined their requirements, they evaluated their own contracting strategies and, in some cases, introduced competition in areas where it wasn’t previously planned.

“We’re seeing some subcontractor relationships on this program to bring in even more of a competitive edge and a better price point at the end,” he said.

Davis said the program regularly considers opportunities to think creatively about keeping the program competitive. Asked whether it may opt to maintain more than one payload provider following the rapid prototyping phase, Davis said the program is open to the possibility.

“We have some time to think about it, but we are considering all options at this point and figuring out what makes the most sense,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of value in competition -- not surprisingly, given just the inherent things a competition brings. And we’re looking to see if we can continue to partner with industry in that environment to make sure we can be responsive to the threat at the speed factor there and also [keep] the costs manageable given the budgetary pressures.”

Whether that competition will lead to an earlier-than-planned delivery on ESS is still to be seen, and Davis noted it will depend on the needs of requirements holders, primarily U.S. Strategic Command. The service has so far built the program around STRATCOM’s 2032 need-date.

“Obviously, if there was a need to pull that in, we can evaluate that,” he said. “2032 is a long way away.”

In parallel, the program is finalizing its acquisition strategy for the ESS ground segment, and funding for initial competition in fiscal year 2023.

“As we move into the ground acquisition, we’re going to use the same competitive mindset to have multiple vendors in play for some period of time and really use that competitive environment,” he said.

The program officials declined to discuss the details of the strategy as it’s still in development. Lt. Col. Paul La Tour, materiel leader for integration, said part of the intent behind the strategy is to use competition to create options.

“If you read all the case studies from programs in the past, one of the situations the government never really wants to find itself in is where your only option if something goes wrong is to pay more money and lose schedule,” La Tour said. “What we want to do instead is make sure that we can use competition to continue a healthy relationship of meeting schedule and getting appropriate insight while not overburdening the contractor or the government. We’ve achieved that in the space segment and we’re looking to achieve it in a different route on the ground.”