A $10B contract with plenty of questions

GSA-DISA satellite contract is lucrative, but Inmarsat chief has her doubts on whether the FCSA program will deliver the best services to the warfighter.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first part of a two-part interview with Rebecca Cowen-Hirsh, former DISA satellite program executive officer and current president of Inmarsat Government Services.

No equivocation. No drama. No nonsense.

Anyone looking at any of the above, should look elsewhere; you’ll get none of that from Rebecca Cowen-Hirsh, former Defense Information Systems Agency Satellite Communications program executive officer and director of the Defense Spectrum Office.


Billions of dollars heading to satellite programs -- in theory

Likewise, expect no sugarcoating, no softpedaling, no sly skullduggery from the now president of Inmarsat Government Services Inc., a U.S. subsidiary of London-based global mobile satellite communications services provider Inmarsat plc.

But if you want to talk warfighter support, satellite technology, especially mobile IPv6 data networks, and satellite technology and the role they play in defense, national security and emergency response, Cowen-Hirsh will make the time. Under certain conditions.

“I want to concentrate on policy,” she warns in response to a request to talk about the Future ComSatCom Satellite Acquisition from DISA and the General Services Administration. Her tone delivers the message: She won’t be drawn into caviling about FCSA’s details.

There is a certain dichotomy, lost on the printed page, in hearing her mellifluous voice deliver blistering indictments of Defense Department satellite planning and acquisition policy. What is clear is, to eye or ear, is this is no backbiting maneuvering for business advantage; every harsh word tracks inexorably back to support for the warfighter.

After a collision in February 2009 destroyed a (non-Inmarsat) U.S. satellite and a Russian satellite, the Air Force and the U.S. Strategic Command said they would work to expand satellite tracking to all 800 maneuverable spacecraft then operating. Cowen-Hirsch leapt to meet with U.S. military officials in Colorado Springs and Washington help facilitate the action.

“It was my greatest honor and privilege to serve the Defense Department for 20 years,” she said, her voice cracking slightly. “I view those years as very instructive in my professional formulation. It was absolutely an honor to have served and I am pleased to have done so.”

She received the U.S. Air Force Civilian Exemplary Service Award for, according to AFCEA, “her consummate professionalism, dedication, and unparalleled technical expertise in support of the military space systems.”

Washington Technology contributing editor Sami Lais talked with Cowen-Hirsch in April about FCSA, satellite technology and Defense satellite acquisition policy.

WASHINGTON TECHNOLOGY: As DISA’s SatCom director until about a year and a half ago, and now the government services chief at Inmarsat, you have a unique view of Defense Department satellite communication needs and restrictions. How do you see FCSA meeting those?

REBECCA COWEN-HIRSCH: Schedule 70 allows a storefront where everyone can come and all industry can be represented. Conceptually that’s certainly an interesting idea. It’s been done in other areas, for office supplies, for example, but to date, it’s not been done for commercial satellite communications.

WT: You’re talking about commoditization of bandwidth.

COWEN-HIRSCH: A concern is that in concentrating on getting rock-bottom prices, DOD may be giving up important value.
In Southwest Asia, Afghanistan, more than 95 percent of the satellite communication provided in that theater of operation is provided by commercial satellite. If you treat that as a commodity, versus as an integral warfighter capability, I think its creates a risk for the operational environment within the DOD. From the industry standpoint, the commoditization and having to go to rock-bottom prices may compromise your ability to invest in advanced capability, in your bandwidth. DOD talks about the partnership that it wants with industry, but that also may be compromised.

WT: The wide-open aspect of Schedule 70 is meant to offer choices to satisfy different government civilian and military needs. You pick the provider that fits. Why would that be a problem?

COWEN-HIRSCH: When a requirement comes in to be contracted out, for which [an agency or authority] will do a competition, the differentiators that make one proposal from one operator better than another proposal from another operator, other than cost, is unclear.
If you’re just looking at cost as a differentiator, then indeed you are commoditizing bandwidth and, worse, going for what could be a minimally technically acceptable provider, if at the least cost. Minimally technically acceptable is not a best-value proposition, which is what the current contract and procurement guidance is in the federal government — a best-value proposition, not just least cost.

WT: There also seem to be a lot of concerns in the contractor community about how evaluations will be done and by whom, both at contract award and task order level.

COWEN-HIRSCH: I believe that while the community is so heavily involved in what the contract mechanism of FCSA will and will not do, while there are remaining unanswered questions with respect to how it is that DOD addresses SatCom requirements strategically, the programming for them, planning for them and executing them, we won’t know how the contracts should support those efforts. I think we may have the cart in front of the horse here.

WT: Specifically?

COWEN-HIRSCH: Insofar as we may have an adaptable contract vehicle, [DISA and GSA] are certainly marching on a timeline to have it ready when the existing contractual mechanisms expire.

But what remains unanswered sufficiently is how the department is changing its policy, its focus, its planning to fully integrate commercial satcom, which today provides more than 80 percent of the SatCom requirements — in theater of operations, it’s in excess of 96 percent of SatCom requirements — and MilSatCom (UHF) is 500 percent oversubcribed.

We don’t know how the DOD is going to do this in a meaningful, strategic and best-value proposition going forward. As it stands [with such a strong emphasis on price], I don’t see how DOD will obtain the value-added mission-critical services they need to support warfighters in the field. Especially as there’s already a shortfall in bandwidth on the ground in several areas.

The contract vehicle is interesting, but understanding how they’re going to do the business of providing communications has to undergird any type of procurement approach.

Watch for a Q&A with Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, Part II, in which she takes on DOD’s budgeting and planning for satellite capacity, and goes out on a limb to make predictions for satellite providers and customers, and how the industry will change.