Budget addition for WGS resets debate on the future of military space communications

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This article originally appeared in the April 9, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

The question of what will replace the constellation of military Wideband Global Satcom satellites known as WGS has been the subject of extensive Pentagon reviews.

The latest “analysis of alternatives” is scheduled to wrap up next month and, according to government and industry officials, is poised to recommend a future “hybrid” network of military satellites and commercial services.

Congress slipped an extra pair of WGS satellites into the 2018 omnibus bill. Credit: Boeing
Congress slipped an extra pair of WGS satellites into the 2018 omnibus bill. Credit: Boeing

The Pentagon did not request any money in the 2018 or 2019 budgets to buy new WGS satellites beyond the 10 already ordered from Boeing. This was viewed as a sign DoD was ready to begin a transition to a new system and give commercial satcom providers a bigger share of the pie. WGS-9 was deployed last year, and WGS-10 is scheduled for launch in 2019.

So it came as a shock when House appropriators last month slipped $600 million into the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill for WGS satellites 11 and 12. This add-on had not appeared in any previous marks of the overdue 2018 spending bill by the congressional defense committees. The appropriators justified it as a necessary bridge to prevent capacity gaps until the future satcom architecture is in place.

An expansion of the WGS constellation to 12 satellites guarantees that the military will have more of its own satcom capacity and may need less from commercial services, dealing a setback to the industry that has argued for years that it can provide a better value for the money.

Like other DoD procurements, WGS started out as a short-term project that solidified its role over time. Boeing was selected in 2002 to build two satellites for what the Air Force was still calling the Wideband Gapfiller System.

The Pentagon at the time was planning a sophisticated new constellation called the Transformational Satellite Communications System. Boeing and Lockheed Martin were still vying for the TSAT prime contract when the by-then-projected $25 billion program was canceled in 2009 after years of cost growth. WGS, newly rechristened Wideband Global Satcom, became the military’s largest satcom system by default.

WGS is now an international constellation. Australia paid for WGS-6 and Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and New Zealand collectively financed the WGS-9 satellite. International partners receive a proportional share of the bandwidth based on their financial contribution.

Ken Peterman, president of government systems at Viasat, a satellite broadband services provider, told SpaceNews that the industry is disappointed to see more money go to WGS.

Peterman called it a “political earmark” that blindsided DoD.

Like others in the satcom industry, Peterman insisted that commercial technology has far surpassed what WGS can offer. He compared the investment in more WGS satellites to buying first-generation BlackBerry devices instead of taking advantage of the latest smartphone technology. “These are warfighters we’re giving this technology to,” he said. “To give them 10-to-15 year-old technology when we could be giving them something that is three to five generations more advanced is just wrong.”

Industry consultant Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute — a think tank funded by Boeing and other defense firms — pushed back on the criticism. A payload upgrade introduced with the launch of WGS-8 in 2016 increased the satellite’s bandwidth roughly 50 percent over earlier WGS spacecraft.

Thompson said usage of WGS voice, video and data services is growing at double-digit rates annually, and a capacity shortfall is projected for 2020 if the system is not upgraded. Congress saw that Air Force did not have a solid transition in place, Thompson said, so it moved to buy more of the existing satellites.

“Experience teaches that when key performance features for spacecraft are changed, there are often technical and funding delays that lead to schedule slips,” said Thompson. “So Congress is reluctant to stop buying satellites that work until the risks that arise in replacing them have been retired.”

Air Force officials would not comment on how the WGS add-on might impact the analysis of its future replacement. Industry sources who did not want to be quoted by name said the decision at the very least casts a cloud of uncertainty and might delay a transition to more commercial services.

William Gattle, president of Harris Corp.’s Space and Intelligence Systems, said WGS illustrates how tough it is for the military to shift gears on major programs.

Harris is a supplier of WGS antennas so the company is a clear beneficiary of the budget add-on.

Boeing technicians push the WGS-5 satellite into an acoustic test chamber. Credit: Boeing
Boeing technicians push the WGS-5 satellite into an acoustic test chamber. Credit: Boeing

The government has moved much slower with space communications than it has in other areas, Gattle said in a interview with SpaceNews.

“The challenge is that they don’t control the commercial market,” he said. “They’re trying to mix large government owned with smaller commercial satellites” but DoD is not as comfortable working with systems it doesn’t own.

“If you already have a capability like WGS, you’re a winner because they need capability quickly,” Gattle said. “It’s harder for them to figure out how to steer exactly what they want.”

That is a key reason why the wideband communications analysis of alternatives — which kicked off in late 2016 — has dragged on so long.

The situation is different on the intelligence side where the government owns constellations of surveillance and missile-warning satellites. “They have a better ability to control that,” said Gattle. “They can design the architecture any way they want it.”

The government is moving faster and investing more aggressively in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, constellations, while “communications has almost slowed to a stop.”

It also doesn’t help the commercial industry that communications technology is in transition. “Commercial people are now debating: Should they build another big satellite? Should they join with OneWeb?” Gattle said. “That’s not happening on the ISR side. It’s more cohesive and there’s no confusion in the marketplace.”

As DoD continues to analyze options, said Gattle, “Congress steps in and says ‘you probably need more WGS.’”

One immediate reaction to the WGS plus-up was that Congress had extra money to spend and that’s where it chose to spend it. But there is probably some “strategic judgment” for why the money was added, said Jamie Morin, executive director of the Center for Space Policy and Strategy and vice president of The Aerospace Corporation.

It is always difficult to accurately forecast recapitalizations of military space systems, said Morin.
“Without a lot of certainty about how long constellations will last, you have to decide: Buy more of the same or something different?” Morin said in an interview. “Also, you have a history in DoD of underestimating how long it will take and how much it will cost to produce major systems.”

The Air Force has “some good ideas on how to accelerate things that could well work,” said Morin. “But Congress has some concern that transitions historically have been harder than advertised.”

The WGS funding was indeed a surprise, said Morin. “DoD has been doing things to maximize the value of WGS, working to make it more resilient. It’s been great in engaging allies.”

Congress holds the power of the purse and it made the call.