Friday, December 08, 2017

Long Awaited DND Polar Sats Postponed. Will be Cancelled/ Replaced/ Renamed After Next Election (Like Last Time)

          By Chuck Black

Back in October 2017, this blog predicted that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would need to make some sort of official announcement before the next Federal budget in March 2018 on the status of the enhanced satellite communication project (ESCP), a long running, expensive, but mostly unfunded proposal to build a two node constellation of modified Molniya orbiting Department of National Defence (DND) satellites "to fill the requirement of the new Canadian defense policy for all-Arctic (communications) coverage."

"Hey Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!" As outlined in the May 26th, 2016 DND website, "Enhanced Satellite Communication Project," the Liberal government initially postulated final delivery of the two ESCP satellites in 2024 which even then, was kinda amusing. That date has since been superseded by a revised "No later than 2029" final delivery date. Why were the dates so laughable? The ESCP was a follow-on the cancelled Polar Communications and Weather (PCW) constellation which, as outlined in the July 17th, 2016 post, "The Polar Communications & Weather Satellite (PCW) Mission is Dead; To Revive it, our Military Wants More Money," had been kicking around for a decade and had grown from a useful $600Mln CDN proposal into a far larger $4.5Bln CDN potential boondoggle before being cancelled. The previous PCW advocates were initially promised a "final delivery" in 2016. As Rocky the Flying Squirrel would say, "Hokey Smokes!" Graphic c/o Gov't of Canada.

And, as outlined in the October 26th, 2017 post, "A Quick Overview of the Next Few Expected Federal Announcements Concerning the Canadian Space Industry," this blog also suggested that the DND proposal might be at risk of being cancelled or superseded in favor of a purchase of services from one of the numerous (and less expensive) commercial-off-the-shelf low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite communications constellations currently being assessed by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC). 

Ottawa, ON based Telesat Canada, with it's proposed 290 satellite LEO communications constellation expected to become operational in 2021, was even mentioned as actively lobbying DND to become the "anchor tenant" for its satellite constellation.

But this week, DND released the long anticipated "Request for Information for the Enhanced Satellite Communication Project - Polar (ESPC-P)."

As outlined in the December 4th, 2017 letter of interest LOI/ request for information (RFI) under the title "Enhanced SATCOM Project - Polar (W6369-180123/A)," any real work on the program, now known as ESPC-Polar (or ESPC-P for short) has been pushed out well past the next election.

A contract award for ESCP-P is expected "no later than 2024" according to the LOI/RFI. By the time the satellites are launched and operational, it could be 2029.

This places any contract award well past the 2019 estimated date for the next Federal election and also past the 2020 - 2022 date for the roll-out of many of the FCC proposed civilian LEO com-sat constellations, such as the one proposed by Telesat.

ESPC proposed procurement schedule according to December 4th, 2017 Buyand Sell procurement documentation on the ESCP-P program. Graphic c/o Gov't of Canada.

And here's where it gets silly. After years and years of serious study, the Federal government insists that it still doesn't really know how the satellites should be configured or what they should be doing.

To lesson the confusion, the DND will engage "in a consultative process" as its first step toward actually buying something. According to the LOI/RFI:
In consideration of industry's insights and other operational imperatives, a Request for Information (RFI) is being used to initiate engagement with industry to help further define the requirements for a more comprehensive solution as well as to understand current market capacity and interest in preparation of a subsequent RFP (Request for Proposal).
That first phase is scheduled to take at least another year. Key objectives include:
  • Informing "Industry" of the DND ESCP-P requirements.
  • Obtaining industry input "on the feasibility, deficiencies and proposed improvements with respect to potential options to meet the requirement needs."
  • "Align this requirement" with the industry capabilities "as applicable," whatever that means.
  • Seek industry input on "potential economic leveraging opportunities."
  • Obtain rough order of magnitude (ROM) costing estimates.
Given that the idea of two satellites in eccentric orbits able to cover the Canadian north to provide a variety of useful applications has been kicking around Ottawa, DND and the Canadian Space Agency since at least 2008, when the idea was known as the polar communications and weather (PCW) constellation, it seems obvious that most of the answers to the above listed questions are already available.

It should be noted that even Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan (shown here, walking past an honour guard at US Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, where he attended a meeting of defense ministers on July 2nd, 2017) concedes that the Canadian military is underfunded. As outlined in the October 26th, 2017 Global News post, "Liberal government’s defence plan threatened by shortage of procurement staff," Senior officials at the Defence Department believe that "they will be challenged to make good on the Trudeau government’s promise to buy billions of dollars in new military equipment in the coming years." Photo c/o Saul Loeb/ AFP/Getty.

Therefore, it cannot help but be noted that the ESCP-P program seems to have been intentionally delayed by the government. This is likely a cost cutting measure, although government representatives at one point also suggested that there simply isn't enough Federal procurement staff available to facilitate the process and fill out the necessary paperwork.

Yeah, right...

Whatever the real reason for the delay, current estimates to complete the ESCP-P program start far north of the estimated $1.5Bln CDN the Federal government is willing to concede.

All of which is bad news for the Canadian and international space companies who've been waiting years for this project.

They'll be forced to pretend that everything remains on-track for an eventual purchase, even as they (and their supply chains) slowly twist in the wind. 

Another reminder that cost might indeed be a constraint on the ESCP-P program (then called simply ESCP). As outlined in the March 14th, 2017 Ottawa Citizen post, "Canada talking to U.S., Norway and Denmark about footing bill for new Arctic military satellite," the contract was then expected to be "awarded in 2020 for the Enhanced Satellite Communication Project. The spacecraft would be launched around 2024." Graphic c/o Ottawa Citizen.

Perhaps ESCP-P will be revisited should the consultation process develop the political consensus needed to move forward or money becomes available. Perhaps the program will merge into a commercial proposal and/or become part of the upcoming Telesat constellation.

Perhaps the government will hire more procurement officers to deal with the backlog and/or continue to deal with Arctic military communication requirements the same way it always has, with a little help from the Americans.

Or perhaps ESCP-P will just fade away, to be revived by the next government as a new proposal under a new name. Like last time.
    Chuck Black.

    Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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