Military tech leadership transitioning to private sector
Transformational change is happening within in the Department of Defense (DoD) budget and DoD, says Ken Peterman, President of Viasat’s Government Systems division in the following Q & A. He discusses how technology leadership has transitioned to the private sector and how the DoD needs to adjust its acquisition policy to keep pace with technology development in this changing environment. Peterman covers how such investment has enabled agile development cycles and new capability in applications such as tactical satellite communications (SATCOM), cyber, and tactical networking on the move. Edited excerpts follow.
MCHALE REPORT: Please provide a brief description of your responsibility within Viasat and your group’s role within the company.
PETERMAN: Viasat was founded more than 30 years ago by three young engineers working out of a garage to what is now: a $1.6 billion company with more than 4,500 global employees. There are three main business segments to the company: Commercial Networks – which oversees the development and deployment of our satellite systems, from the satellites themselves to the ground and cloud infrastructure, to the customer premise equipment; Commercial Broadband Services - which delivers high-speed, high-quality satellite broadband internet to more than 600,000 homes across the U.S., and more than 2,000 commercial airline flights daily; and the Government Systems division – which is underneath my leadership team. We look to leverage the same technology across the commercial and government market domains. Under the government side we provide solutions for satellite communications, cyber, networking, antennas, and tactical data links.
Internally Viasat is a not a traditional defense company. We are not big on organizational charts, but function much as the founders did when they were operating out of co-founder and CEO Mark Dankberg’s garage. In fact Mark is still a central developmental engineer and has an open door with everyone in the company.
MCHALE REPORT: The proposed increases in the administration’s DoD budget request are well documented. What does this mean for Viasat and the applications it serves? Are you seeing positive funding growth today and down the road from your military customers?
PETERMAN: There is transformational change occurring in the DoD budget and DoD thinking. They are starting to recognize that technology leadership has transitioned to the private sector, which is good news for the DoD as it no longer has to invent new technology for applications such as tactical SATCOM. It can ride private sector investment, exploiting agile development cycles and deploy a new generation of technology at more rapid intervals than ever before. The DoD also doesn’t have to bear the full responsibility for the long-term costs and schedules, consistent with legacy programs like the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS).
Due to this shift in technology growth from the public to private sector, the DoD is developing new strategies and procurement processes in order to be able to leverage commercial technology, practices, and leadership to gain ubiquitous access to the cloud, to take advantage of big data analytics, and also added security. Another benefit gained from leveraging commercial technology is reduced life cycle costs.
Commercial technology doesn’t have long development cycles, meaning the government won’t have to bear the full cost for using technology over its entire life cycle like it would for a satellite system purposely built for the government. For example when leveraging commercial satellite services the government would only pay for it when they use it, and therefore pay less in the long run.
MCHALE REPORT: What are the key technologies your group focuses on and what capabilities are trending?
PETERMAN: There are three main areas: terrestrial networking, cyber, and SATCOM. There is a great deal of tech crossover between the three and we are able to leverage that. While the government funded the invention of terrestrial networking 40 - 50 years ago with the public purse, today the private sector has taken the lead in the investment of new technologies such as mobile phones and High Capacity SATCOM. At Viasat, our investments include developments in cyber, networking, and SATCOM for both commercial and government customers. By leveraging technologies initially developed for the private sector leadership we are able to provide the warfighter with cutting edge technologies necessary for maintaining an edge on the battlefield.
The problem for the government is that its acquisition policies can’t keep up with the pace of development in the private sector. The gap is widening – commercial users are embracing 5G technologies while the U.S. Army is still issuing SINCGARS [Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System] radios. Technology leadership is needed here. We want every warfighter to have secure access to the cloud no matter where they are in the world.
MCHALE REPORT: Why do government acquisition practices continue to lag?
PETERMAN: What you see is a certain amount of inertia in acquisition policy. For 50 to 60 years the government has been an inventor of technology. It doesn’t know how to buy a turnkey service. Its model is one based on breaking down an ecosystem into parts such as waveforms, modems, etc. This encourages long developmental cycles and higher life cycle costs. By leveraging commercial solutions the government is able to do the complete opposite; because by purchasing a service the government can access a complete, functioning system all at the same time, with no risk and no delays.
Our nation’s warfighters deserve to have the best technology available when they deploy. Early adoption of these cutting edge, commercially-driven technologies can help solve warfighter problems now, For example, our PRC-161 small tactical Link-16 handheld radio developed for U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) went from concept to successful operational assessment in 18 months. Instead of a ten-year development cycle it was only a matter of months before this critical capability was in the field.
An added bonus of commercially driven technologies is the improvement in ease and length of training that they provide. New recruits are able to become quickly accustomed to cloud and tactical network interfaces – as they are similar in functionality to what they have in their personal lives. The only difference is they are encrypted and much more secure.
MCHALE REPORT: Viasat also has a large commercial business. Does that larger volume business provide advantages for supplying your military customers? How do your commercial designs influence military solutions and vice versa? Do you have any examples?
PETERMAN: We work seamlessly with the commercial side of Viasat and the technology is common to a large degree. Requirements for defense and commercial are also more similar than they are different.
For example, SATCOM antennas and terminals for warfighters with real-time capability can be expensive especially when orders for them only number in tens of thousands. It’s not a big addressable market. However, when you look at the commercial market and the growth of connected cars and driverless cars, the volume is much higher. Here millions of dollars are being spent on designing low profile satellite terminals that blend into the car roof without disturbing its lines. Such technology is expensive, but when it’s being designed into a million cars a year that production volume brings down the cost of the antenna, the terminal, etc. The DoD can reap the benefits of that production volume, by taking the antenna tech from a Tesla and putting it on a HMMWV [High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle] they solve a tech problem for the warfighter while also reducing development time and saving millions of dollars in life-cycle costs. This an enormous advantage for private sector companies like Viasat who play in both markets.
MCHALE REPORT: As the DoD looks to acquire more commercial products – what is one thing they need to change about their purchasing process?
PETERMAN: Open standards from the DoD perspective need to specify “the what” and not “the how.” For many technologies the DoD uses, such as Smartphones, the standards need to be at the higher networking level, not the inner workings of the device. When the DoD specifies “the how” in addition to “the what” they are limiting the ability of the private sector to provide innovative solutions. “The what” is the capability you need not “the how,” which only reduces the number of cyber, SATCOM, or other solutions industry can provide.
For example, if the government needs a new transport vehicle that can be easily refueled anywhere in the world, their specification should be limited to the capability – global refueling – and not specify how the auto industry will design it.
MCHALE REPORT: When one attends a trade show such as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) or others like it, one can’t help but notice there is a lot less gray hair at these events than at military technology events such as the large Army and Navy shows. Does the military electronics industry have a recruitment challenge on its hands?
PETERMAN: I think the defense industrial base does have a significant talent acquisition problem. It’s even deeper than that as it’s a relevancy problem. Military purpose-built terrestrial networking and SATCOM tech is becoming less and less relevant to young engineers. This is the reason you see gray hair, because young engineers don’t view it as cool, interesting stuff. The traditional defense company is very regimented and understandably so with certain government accountability required, but they lack the openness and collaborative environments that enable Google and Facebook to attract talent. Which is why a place like Viasat with its innovative business model, that enables a young engineer to collaborate with the founder without any walls, keeps it evergreen.
At Viasat I see tons of interns, and new college grads joining the company every year. We think differently and are not encumbered with the scar tissue of the last 20 years in the defense industry, so we don’t have the recruitment challenge traditional defense companies do. Much of their leadership came out of the DoD. Once their service is complete many officers join the traditional defense primes when they move to the private sector. In contrast we have talent centers all over the world, recruiting expertise from multiple markets.
MCHALE REPORT: Looking forward, what disruptive technology/innovation will be a game changer in the military tactical communications space? Predict the future.
PETERMAN: Hands down it will be when the ViaSat-3 satellite constellation becomes operational. It will enable the DoD to be more capable with its performance envelope than with the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) and Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites now in orbit. The tech baseline will have moved several generations, capacity will increase, and it will have dynamic reallocation resiliency. The new constellation will provide assured continuous secure access to the cloud with the same situational awareness enabled by design tools from the private sector, which means young warfighters will have a seamless transition from their personal connectivity to their communication devices while in service.
The capacity, security, and resiliency provided by Viasat-3 will enable a teenager go to a recruiting station, join the armed forces, and when deployed have the same kind of access with his military tactical communications that he had with his personal Smartphone. This is enormously important. I think its game changing.
Another advantage will be with mobile and in-flight connectivity. For example, we already connect hundreds of aircraft with in-flight broadband video, enabling telemedicine straight into an airplane, in real-time. Thanks to this technology experts can provide knowledge and advice to help with medical emergencies in flight. The military needs to be able do the same thing. If a Blackhawk helicopter medevac’ing a wounded warrior can have the same in-flight connectivity commercial flights have, lives can be saved.