Game Changer: Ken Peterman, President, Government Systems, Viasat Inc.

Meet Ken Peterman, President of Government Systems at Viasat. He was selected as a Game Changer for the April/May 2018 issue of Vanguard.

After graduating from college, Peterman decided to enter the defence electronics industry because of the exciting technology sector at that time.

The Department of Defense (DoD) and their contractors were inventing new capabilities, like satellite communications and GPS, designed to increase safety, reduce fratricide, and empower the warfighter with improved mission effectiveness,” said Peterman. “I worked on teams developing new satellite communications capabilities and new terrestrial networks, and this was very cutting edge. I participated in one of the very first Type-1 security certifications of a militarized computer and also worked on the command, control and communications (C3) system and communications network architecture for ground and airborne weapon systems.”

Ken Peterman

Later, there was the Joint Tactical Radio System Program (JTRS) that was a part of the communications suite for the U.S. Army’s Future Combat System. “These were all major technology development programs, and the work was very exciting,” he added.

He later moved from engineering to business management, and is currently the President of Government Systems at Viasat – a world leader in satellite communications, networking and related technologies.

Viasat’s government business is a market leader in tactical networking and Link-16 data links; information assurance and cybersecurity; assured, high capacity satellite communications; and air/ground situational awareness. Before joining Viasat, he founded the SpyGlass Group – an advisor and thought leader in emerging defence and aerospace market trends. Ken also served as President, Exelis Communications and Force Protection Systems, and as President, ITT Communications Systems.  He was also Vice President, Rockwell Collins Integrated Command, Control and Communications (C3) Systems; and Vice President, Rockwell Collins Displays and Awareness Systems.  While in these positions, he participated on a variety of boards and advisory groups across the defence communications and cybersecurity sectors.

“This has been a very interesting journey of more than 35 years,” he said.

Here is the full interview with Ken Peterman.

What was your most challenging moment?

There have been many challenging moments!   Mergers and acquisitions are a good example and can be very challenging for all concerned, as they bring together people that might operate very differently and have very different cultures.  I have been involved on both sides – both as an acquirer and as part of an organization that has been acquired. This has given me an in-depth understanding of corporate culture, how important it truly is, and how different one corporate culture can be from another.  I now have a deep appreciation for how crucial culture is to an organization’s performance, especially if it creates a positive environment that empowers people to innovate and unleash their passion.  People and teams can really accomplish remarkable things in this kind of positive and enabling cultural environment.

As an example, I once participated in a multi-step merger and associated assimilation of six different defence companies.  One of my responsibilities was to bring these six companies together by creating a single strategic technology roadmap across the newly created enterprise – effectively bringing together the technologies and business strategies of the six newly merged businesses. This was really challenging as there were very significant cultural differences among these six companies. In this role, I led the creation of non-geographically based centers of excellence, which drew upon the expert technical capabilities of the diverse businesses in a geographically agnostic way and integrated the best practices of each –   effectively merging people who had been fierce competitors into a single team. This was a significant challenge and required genuine innovation in team building and organizational design.

Can you tell us about your  “aha” moment or epiphany that you think will resonate most with our reader? 

At Viasat we have created a pretty remarkable culture of innovation that is really empowering for our people.  I’ll give you one example. In June 2014, there was an airstrike that went horribly wrong; in fact, it marked one of the most tragic friendly fire incidents in more than 12 years of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.  A B-1B Lancer bomber dropped its ordnance on five U.S. soldiers, including members of an elite Special Forces team.  This happened in the heat of battle and was an incredibly stressful situation exacerbated by poor communications.  When our team learned of this tragedy, it ignited our passion, and we were committed to do something to help; we wanted to find a better way.

We immediately met with active and former military personnel (some were working at Viasat), and we learned that Close Air Support (CAS) targeting was still coordinated essentially the same way as it was during World War II –   by voice.  We also learned that there was no direct digital data communications link between the Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC’s) on the ground and the Fighter/Attack CAS aircraft flying overhead.  Targeting coordination, which includes the positions of friendly ground forces, was conducted entirely by voice communications between the CAS pilot in the air, who then radioed to a transfer station, and then eventually contacted the JTAC on the ground.  Notwithstanding the best of intentions, due to intermittent and unreliable communications, this is an inherently imprecise process that called for a ‘better way’.

Within just a few months, in October 2014, after sketching an initial concept on the back of a napkin, Viasat began development of a Handheld Link-16 (HHL16) radio, which was a very challenging technology innovation that had never been attempted before.   Nonetheless, our team was intensely passionate to somehow get this done, and we did just that.  In just 17 months, the first HHL16 radios were delivered to Special Forces JTAC’s, and the new radios underwent a thorough operational assessment.  Not only did the HHL16 radios provide the direct digital data link and fix the problem, the data link was also proven to be reliable and secure, even when an adversary was intentionally trying to disrupt the tactical communications link. Following this successful operational assessment, the HHL16 radio earned the official nomenclature “AN/PRC-161”, and immediately entered production.  All this happened incredibly fast; just 22 months had passed since the initial concept was sketched on back of that napkin!

Today, ViaSat’s AN/PRC-161 HHL16 radio provides a reliable, secure and direct tactical data link between the JTAC’s and the CAS Fighter/Attack aircraft, enabling a genuine breakthrough in precise targeting coordination, now called Digitally Aided Close Air Support, or DACAS.  By digitally connecting the CAS aircraft to the digital situational awareness database created by the JTAC on the ground, the pilot can now be highly confident that the air strike targeting coordination is precisely accurate, so that deadly mistakes won’t happen again.  DACAS is, in fact, the ‘better way’ that we had passionately been searching for.

What is the one thing that has you most fired up today?

Having begun my career in the defence industry – which at the time was in the business of inventing new capabilities for the warfighter such as satellite communications, GPS and mobile networking – I saw firsthand how challenging complex DoD technology development programs can really be, especially in terms of cost and schedule.    It has been amazing to see some of these defence technologies cross over to the private sector and bring new capabilities to the commercial market – especially in technology sectors like mobile networking, satellite communications and cybersecurity, where the private sector has applied agile development processes to accelerate technology trajectories at a pace that the DoD acquisition process could not possibly support.

Satellite communications is a great example of this innovation and technology trajectory. Our Viasat satellites, for example, have 100 times the capacity and performance of a DoD satellite that was state of the art as recently as 2007. We can now bring these private sector technologies back to the warfighter more rapidly and more affordably than would be possible using the DoD acquisition process.  For example, state of the art satellite communications networks have progressed from satellites that were capable of delivering roughly 5Gbps and could support a few thousands of users, to satellite systems in 2020 that will provide well over 1Tbps of network capacity and support tens of millions of simultaneous users. This is a 1000x improvement in just 15 years, which is the average lifespan of a DoD purpose-built satellite.

In the 2020s, the private sector technology trajectory will undoubtedly field satellite networks that offer 10Tbps or 100Tbps capacity and throughput.  This is really amazing, and it enables the DoD to adopt a hybrid adaptive network architecture akin to what the commercial cell phone industry uses today.   This hybrid architecture is proven technology that will allow DoD users to seamlessly roam among multiple satellite networks – some DoD purpose-built and some commercial – in the same way that our cell phones roam today.  Leveraging these private sector satellite networks will rapidly and affordably empower warfighters in ways that are truly game-changing.   Also, adopting these proven private sector capabilities will impose difficult challenges on our adversaries, and this helps deter future conflicts.  This is all very good news!

What is the best advice you received?

Be true to yourself and follow your heart. Which seems like pretty simple advice, but it’s true.

What is a habit that contributes to your success?

I am genuinely passionate about what I do, and I think that shows; that makes a difference in every aspect of my professional life.

What people or organizations do you believe best embody the innovation mindset?

Well, I love Viasat; the people and the corporate culture are really unique and empowering in ways that I have not seen anywhere else.   The Viasat culture is designed to unleash people’s passion and excitement, and that spurs innovation that is absolutely game-changing.

Tell us a little more about your role at Viasat today?

I am President of the Government Systems Division of Viasat, Inc. Viasat was founded over 30 years ago by three young engineers working out of their garage. Today, Viasat is a $1.6 billion company with over 4,500 employees around the globe. Since its founding, Viasat has been an agile company committed to delivering the latest technologies solutions today for the mission needs of tomorrow.

Viasat has three main business segments: Commercial Networks, Government Systems and Commercial Broadband Services. The segment I lead, the Government Systems segment, has revenues of ~$800M per year and has experienced a compound annual growth rate of ~12 per cent over the last six years.  Viasat produces satellite payloads and ground infrastructure, satellite terminals, networked data links and cybersecurity solutions that provide high speed, assured, secure global communications serving both the commercial and government sectors.  Viasat’s government business is a market leader in tactical networking and Link-16 data links; information assurance and cybersecurity; assured, high capacity satellite communications; and air/ground situational awareness.

Viasat Government Systems has grown significantly during my tenure with the company and has transitioned from a small, products-based business to a much larger, operational capabilities based business; moving Viasat from a “box provider” to a tier-one solutions provider.  This breakthrough transformation, while preserving legacy business performance, has established Viasat as an industry leader in satellite communications, terrestrial networking and cybersecurity in the defence market segment. Viasat has demonstrated the ability to compete and win large competitions against major U.S. defence primes, where Viasat had previously performed as a subcontractor/teammate. This swift transformational change has enabled sustainable growth at the next level with overall business performance that continues to defy market trends.

How is your organization changing the game within your industry sector? 

I joined Viasat because of the company’s unique approach to delivering the most advanced technology solutions available for military customers. It’s our approach that has allowed us to lead the market in tactical networking and Link-16 datalinks; cybersecurity and information assurance; assured, high capacity satellite communications; and air/ground situational awareness.

Through an agile development process and flexible business model, we can swiftly deliver cutting-edge technology solutions that answer customers’ evolving mission needs. By collaborating with our customers on a near day-to-day basis, we’re able to understand nuances of certain missions, identify technological issues, and experience first-hand problems they encounter in the field. Then, we’re able to work together to develop solutions that will truly empower our military forces around the world.

We also offer more innovative business models compared to a majority of defence companies that focus only on responding to Requests for Proposals (RFPs). As a result, we’re able to take advantage of the best of commercial innovation and deliver game changing technologies today, not 10 years from now. Viasat is continually increasing our proactive collaboration with our U.S. and international defence customers at every opportunity, establishing and sustaining real-time engagement so that we can exploit our uniquely innovative culture and our cutting-edge technologies in ways that solve real customer problems.

Creating solutions to our customers’ real problems in this manner has also allowed us to operate outside existing Programs of Record, enabling us to monetize our solutions using innovative commercial business models. By monetizing the features the customer values most, and focusing on the dimensions of value that our competitors cannot offer, we continue to create an enduring competitive advantage.

Viasat is in a truly unique position in the defence market. As an innovative and agile technology leader, we can develop solutions much faster and more effectively than our competitors. Furthermore, we can create solutions our customers genuinely need, rather than simply responding to what they might be asking for in their RFP’s.  This proactive customer collaboration empowers us to apply our technologies more effectively, more precisely articulate our value proposition, more effectively establish competitive barriers to entry, and more powerfully monetize each opportunity by establishing price flexibility based on customer value, not our cost.

What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in your industry sector?

In the last 25 years, we have seen a technology leadership crossover from the military to the private sector.  Ash Carter, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, spoke to this crossover in 2015 at the George Washington University Elliot School of International Affairs in Washington, DC; “When I began my career, most technology of consequence originated in America, and much of that was sponsored by the government, especially the Defense Department.  Today, much more technology is commercial.”  Mr. Carter also noted how the military drove technological innovations forward in the past, with such projects as the Internet, the Global Positioning Satellite System, spaceflight and the jet engine.

The present reality is that private sector innovation continues to accelerate at a pace much faster than the DoD.  Driven by market pressures requiring exponential innovation to stay one step ahead of the competition, the private sector now clearly leads technology development in the mobile communications and cybersecurity technology sectors, and this technology has been integrated into the fabric of everyday life and military operations.

The biggest thing holding innovation back within the global defence industry is that defence organizations haven’t come to terms with this technology crossover. Too many times they still insist on being the originator or developer of a solution when a better answer is already available. Innovation doesn’t always mean inventing something; sometimes the most innovative approach is being the first organization that better integrates a solution, allowing military forces to leverage the innovation and adapt their way of fighting to take advantage of it.

Today’s military forces need to be ready at a moment’s notice, and we have a responsibility to empower warfighters with the best technology available at the lowest possible cost to U.S. taxpayers. I’m encouraged by the steps the DoD is taking to provide military forces with commercial technologies necessary for maintaining a tactical edge, but there’s still more to be done. I’m looking forward to continuing to work with the DoD to develop an acquisition model built for the 21st century.

How has innovation become engrained in your organization’s culture, and how is it being optimized? 

Innovation has always been at the core of Viasat’s culture. Internally, we are not your traditional defence company. While we continue to expand our operations around the world, Viasat remains committed to its start-up like roots: fast, agile, and always pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in the defence market. Unlike our competitors, we focus on investing and creating operational capabilities, not just products. As a result, we’re able to streamline processes and deliver real capabilities warfighters need today for the missions of tomorrow.

The private sector engages in many types of innovation: innovation in answer to a market threat, innovation to assure their technological edge and to build competitive barriers to entry, and innovation because we see an unmet need. Viasat engages in all three kinds of innovation. More than 10 years ago, the satellite industry began to take notice of the advancing threats posed by cyber and electronic warfare technology developments and responded by adding layered threat defence capabilities that now outperform purpose-built military and government systems.

Since 2010, Viasat has invested significant capital to harden our satellites and networks against scintillation, electromagnetic interference and cyber threats to secure our C2 up/down links, to reduce single points of failure in teleport and ground infrastructure, and to automate our operations, maintenance, and cybersecurity processes. These investments have led to exponentially improved hardening, security, and operating concepts based on advancing threats to their business and operations models.  This ability to respond quickly and agilely to emerging threats is one area where the private sector really excels.

Purpose-built government systems often take 7-10 years to acquire, develop and deploy, and are very difficult and expensive to modify/upgrade once deployed; Viasat’s satellite communication systems are conceived from scratch and deployed in under five years, and employ flexible architectures and DevOps concepts that allow for rapid modifications, upgrades, and near-instantaneous response to security concerns.

Since 2005, state of the art of satellite communications networks have progressed from satellites that were capable of roughly 5Gbps and could support hundreds or thousands of users, to Viasat’s VS-3 satellite system, that in 2020 will provide well over 1Tbps of capacity and support tens of millions of simultaneous users – an improvement by three orders of magnitude.

What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?

I think the biggest change we are going to see in the defence sector is a push for superiority in space. As part of that push, satellite communications (SATCOM) will play an integral role. U.S. military forces have depended on SATCOM mission capabilities for decades, but we are starting to see our peer and near-peer adversaries like Russia and China quickly develop technologies that will interfere with or disable current DoD satellite constellations.

Military leaders recognize this threat and are pushing to leverage the speed of commercial innovation. Department purpose-built networks, like Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) satellites, no longer meet the assured, secure, and high-capacity needs of today’s military forces. Our new ViaSat-2 satellite, for example, already has more than 100 times a WGS satellite’s capacity. Our ViaSat-3 network – expected to launch in 2020 –  will have 1 Terabyte (1000 Gigabytes) per second. Each of our ViaSat-3 satellites will have more than 200 times the capacity of a WGS satellite.

Due to looming threats, I think we will see a shift by the DoD to move to a hybrid adaptive network architecture, which would allow military forces to roam freely across private sector and DoD purpose-built networks. By combining the power of commercial and DoD systems, we will be able to develop the most assured, secure, high capacity SATCOM network in the world, equipping our warfighters with the tools needed across today’s digital battlespace.

These increasingly sophisticated threat vectors and the absolute need to maintain and deliver effective network-centric operational capabilities under all conditions, will drive governments to move toward a much more integrated end-to-end SATCOM architecture and buy service in more fully integrated service plans that deliver assured performance levels and provide much better mission effectiveness across the more demanding emerging spectrum of operational environments, including these more sophisticated threat vectors.

Fully integrated SATCOM services procured across this integrated SATCOM architecture will deliver more capacity, performance, security and resiliency than ever before to support current and planned user needs; the integrated system will also be easily scalable to support the increasingly large population of user terminals, including swarms and multi-element terminal populations, that will be deployed in the near future.

The market is clearly changing toward acquiring SATCOM services that combine many new dimensions of value into integrated service plans. These new service plans will bundle assured performance and connectivity with additional services that would never be possible by simply procuring satellite bandwidth as has been done in the past.

What is your parting piece of advice? 

Find your passion and follow your heart.

Author: Marcello Sukhdeo

Marcello is the managing editor of Vanguard, IT in Canada and Canadian Government Executive and the host of Vanguard Radio and WRLWND Radio podcasts. He is an avid technology and security enthusiast, who has worked on content leadership strategies for a number of industries including the public sector, life science, technology and defence.

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