Ken Peterman is passionate, excited, and hell-bent on driving transformational change in the current U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) acquisition process. “Right now, across the United States, 18-year-old high school graduates are volunteering to risk their lives to serve in the Armed Forces at the defense of our nation,” says Peterman, president of Viasat Government Systems. “These young people have grown up connected to the cloud, relying on the ability to instantly gather relevant information to make decisions about every part of their lives.”
“Yet the sobering truth is,” explains Peterman, “when that young person steps onto the battlefield — to face the life-or-death situations— instead of having the always-on Cloud empowerment they’ve always relied on, the US government essentially provides them the same technology that their parents used in the 1991 Gulf War.”
There is no denying that Peterman makes a compelling case for drastic change. For decades, the US DoD has spent billions of dollars becoming the most dominant military force on the planet — lethal, unbeatable, and unmatched. Despite broken acquisition processes the DoD was able to leverage America’s unmatched technological advantage to maintain its lead over its adversaries.
Today, the competition is catching up, and the DoD’s antiquated acquisition process of rigidly-defined technology specifications is in danger of putting the DoD at a disadvantage.
More and more often the DoD finds itself paying traditional defense companies billions of dollars to field communications technologies that are ultimately 10-15 years behind the capabilities of similar commercially-available technology.
Peterman contends that we have reached an inflection point in the US military’s power trajectory. It is time for the DoD to think differently about its capabilities vs peer adversaries, and to embrace new business models that leverage a new Defense Industrial Base in order to effectively defend against emerging threats.
A quick look at Peterman’s stats at the helm of Viasat Government Systems validates his knack for spotting these inflection points. In the last seven years under Peterman’s leadership, Viasat has transformed itself from a small sub-contractor to the DoD’s premier provider of assured communications. Viasat is continually one of the world’s fastest-growing defense contractors and is now among the top 30 defense companies in the US.
Peterman’s vision for the future of military communications is clear, and he has built a strategy and team to seize that potential.
“Viasat is a leader in mobile networking, tactical data links, cybersecurity, and satellite communications,” says Peterman. “This connectivity gives our military operators their greatest advantage in combat by enabling a battlespace network that leverages the latest innovations in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, predictive analytics, IoT, automation, and robotics.”
Under Peterman’s leadership, Viasat has built a culture that passionately focuses on the mission and leverages technical innovation to empower the warfighter in ways that many never dreamed possible.
One of the hallmarks of Peterman’s strategy at Viasat has been combining his team of military veterans (who account for ~40% of the employee base) with other creative engineers and technologists, to bring new technology innovations and mission capabilities to life.
“We focus on developing a deep understanding of the challenges our military customers face in their missions,” explains Peterman, “and then we set our team loose to solve those problems without limiting them with preconceived “requirements”. The resulting solutions are enabling amazing customer outcomes and success stories.”
Case in point: Combat is fast, chaotic, and confusing. In June 2014, five U.S. Special Forces operators and one allied soldier were mistakenly targeted by US aircraft rather than the intended Taliban combatants. When Viasat’s veterans and engineers heard about this tragedy they knew there had to be a solution. They began to look at the root cause of the problem, and sketching on a napkin at dinner one evening, they started designing a new capability that would automate targeting with 100% digital accuracy and eliminate the risk of accidental fratricide.
In less than 18 months, Viasat developed the world’s first system capable of connecting ground forces directly to fighter aircraft. This system used machine-to-machine communications to geo-locate enemy targets with pinpoint accuracy in seconds. Soon after fielding this new technology US Close Air Support missions went from a 29% success rate to a 99% success rate.
“We proactively invented a handheld targeting system and now it is now standard equipment demanded by our military customers,” says Peterman. “Our customers had never asked for it because they never dreamed it was possible, but we were able to anticipate their need and develop the solution, and now they are planning their missions around this capability.”
Peterman believes that insight is the core to Viasat’s success. “The core of a strong, enduring business strategy is insight,” Peterman explains. “Insight into the nature of the situation, insight into your customer’s world and your customer’s experience, and insight into the hidden power of a situation. It’s only with these insights that you can provide services that truly change the game.”
Once you have the insight, and have developed a needed capability, the last remaining challenge is getting it to the military operators who need it. Here again, Peterman looks for answers from civilian life.
“When you or I purchase a mobile phone, we pay a monthly fee, and we expect continuous improvement in service and applications, or we switch platform or service providers. Right now, the DoD does not have that option. If they purchase something today, they are expected to continue to use it for 10-15 years. That does not work in today’s fast-moving technology development environment,” Peterman states. “In order to address this problem Viasat is focused on offering the DoD that same kind of ever-improving capability you get with commercial technology purchases.”
“At Viasat, we are inventing more than just new technologies,” says Peterman. “We are inventing new business models to enable our military customers to adopt these capabilities at the speed of relevance. We realize US military operators need these capabilities to defend against adversarial threats. Those young people on the battlefield shouldn’t pay the cost of the slow pace of government procurement.”
Peterman’s strategy and vision for the future of military communications places Viasat at the vanguard of a new Defense Industrial Base. As the US confronts military operations against peer adversaries, Viasat is well-positioned to provide US forces with the information advantage required to sustain dominance against future threats.
“We’re investing close to $3 billion to provide a global satellite communications capability that is significantly better than anything that’s ever existed,” says Peterman. “We are using that to bring the best possible communications and mission capabilities to our military forces, including cognitive decision aids, proactive tipping and cueing, situational awareness, and cloud empowerment.”
“We connect our warfighters during the toughest missions to ensure that they have the information they need, where and when they need it; enabling them to accomplish the mission, stay safe, and come home to their loved ones,” Peterman says. “That is enormously rewarding for all of us at Viasat and fuels our passion for innovation every day.”