Five Eyes acquisition struggles with private sector innovation
Members of the Five Eyes alliance have in recent years attempted wholesale reform of their acquisition processes to speed up the fielding of new capabilities. However, industry is still seeing a sharp difference when it comes to meeting technological progress coming from the private sector.
Innovation is now largely being driven by the private sector, with a significant amount of military electronics equipment – such as radios or radars – utilising off-the-shelf componentry that can be found in everyday items such as our mobile phones.
The military can no longer afford to develop highly bespoke equipment, both in terms of cost as well as how quickly it takes to get into the hands of frontline troops.
‘[The defence] acquisition process was very effective for 40 or 50 years,’ said Ken Peterman, president of government systems at Viasat, which provides a series of connectivity solutions to the Five Eyes countries including SATCOM. ‘But in the recent past that has been overtaken by the speed of the technology trajectory, especially in the private sector.’
He noted the rapid progress from 2G to 3G mobile connectivity, and now 4G to 5G, as well as the significant data rate capability of new-generation commercial satellites compared with government-owned satellites such as the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) or the Wideband Global Satellite (WGS) satellites.
These government systems offer download speeds of just a few megabits per second, while Viasat’s Peterman said that the new generation Viasat-3 satellites can offer over 100mb/s. ‘We see this technology moving at a pace that is much faster than traditional defence acquisition process,’ affirmed Peterman.
That has led companies such as Viasat to think differently about equipping troops, leveraging the private sector’s culture of innovation and agile business strategies to bring new technologies to market.
‘Instead of necessarily confining ourselves to responding to government request for proposals we have embedded ourselves with the Five Eye war fighter, established intimate understanding of their mission, and of their capability gaps, and the kind of capabilities they wish they had,’ explained Peterman.
As well as its work on SATCOM, Viasat is producing data link solutions such as a new handheld Link 16 radio – known as the AN/PRC-161 – which recently received National Security Agency approval to be used by Five Eyes countries, including special forces and expeditionary units.
Ground units traditionally only used voice communications and paper maps to coordinate air support. However, this new radio can now send key situational data - including target information and location of units - to aircraft, principally in support of close-air support missions for a more ‘complete and holistic view’ of the battlefield.
Peterman told Shephard that the radio was now being deployed in the US and was getting ‘significant traction’ with the rest of the Five Eyes community.
It is not just the hardware where the private sector is forging ahead in terms of innovation and cost saving for Five Eyes connectivity, but also in areas such as services. The UK, a Five Eyes member, has effectively outsourced the running of its Skynet SATCOM network and infrastructure to Airbus Defence and Space under a Private Finance Initiative (PFI).
‘Part of the PFI construct is that the contract is based on output services,’ said an Airbus DS spokesperson. ‘The UK MoD tell us what sort of security, criticality, assurance and data rate [they require], whether they want video or voice, what sort of terminal and then we make it happen.’
Airbus DS took over the Skynet network in 2003 for just £1, but with the obligation to upgrade the entire infrastructure including ground equipment and satellites, as well as services. That has seen a new generation of Skynet 5 satellites come online, which have spare capacity to be used by other nations including the Five Eyes alliance.
One of the satellites was moved in 2015 to cover the Asia Pacific region, reflecting an increase in demand from customers such as the US Navy.
In the future, the UK is likely to move away from the PFI construct for its next-generation Skynet 6 satellites, with industry sources noting that the UK will buy its satellites outright, but once again outsource the services side to the private sector.
‘They like the output services concept that we have been doing for them for many years so they will continue with that,’ the spokesperson commented.