Canada says military satcom negotiations with U.S. are much improved

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LONDON — The Canadian official who negotiated Canada’s entry into the U.S. Wideband Global System (WGS) on Nov. 10 said the U.S. Defense Department has become much more open to international partnerships than it used to be.

Lt. Col. Abde Bellahnid, whose work on WGS was recognized by a meritorious service award from the Canadian government, said his U.S. counterparts have become increasingly willing to take allied opinions into account.

He said he was particularly impressed by the U.S. Defense Department’s willingness to allow allies a seat at the table as the Pentagon evaluates next-generation satellite communications requirements and the future involvement of the commercial sector and U.S. allies. The process, known as an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA), has included an invitation to 16 allies to take part.

Canada is one of them.

“I have been doing this job for eight years, that’s a lot,” Bellahnid said here during the Global Milsatcom conference, organized by SMi Group. “I can tell you that the U.S. team has improved. They are doing extremely well. They are listening to us. Take the example of the participation of the allies in the AoA. We are sitting at the table and making decisions and making recommendations. Just the fact that we have been invited into the AoA is amazing.

“It’s not just that I have been working with them for so many years. They are listening. There has been a lot of improvement,” Bellahnid said.

The half-dozen nations participating in the WGS system, which by 2018 will include 10 satellites in geostationary orbit, have not always been unanimous in their praise of the system.

They have notably complained that while, in principle, having access to a global constellation for a fraction of the cost is a good deal, in practice the bandwidth available to them over a given geographic area at a given time is not aways assured because the capacity had been reserved by U.S. forces.

Bellahnid did not mention any of these issues. He has long said that Canada got access to an $11 billion constellation for about a half-billion dollars; a good deal by any measure especially considering what Canada’s alternative sources of military Ka-band capacity would have cost.

A four-nation polar satcom system, but with Canada leading

Bellahnid may be transferring to another service in mid-2017. Before he leaves he said he would attempt to carry forward the four-nation Enhanced Satellite Communications Project- Polar (ESCP).

Canada is leading the early studies of the project, with the United States, Denmark and Norway as partners. ESCP would require more than one satellite, perhaps in an elliptical orbit, to provide narrowband communications between 65 degrees and 90 degrees north latitude; and wideband coverage between 55 and 90 degrees north latitude.

The system would be interoperable with U.S. and NATO systems in geostationary orbit over the equator.

But its high cost makes it challenging. “ESCP is still not funded,” Bellahnid said. “We have been working on the business case for over a year now. We hope to have a proposed business case finished within six months.”

Being studied are a purpose-built system and one in which the government participants purchased capacity on a managed-service basis, meaning they would have regular access at preset cost but would not themselves operate the orbital infrastructure.

“I am using the same strategy as I did with WGS,” he said. “We operate on conditional funding and keep moving forward, hoping at the last minute that funding will arrive. It’s a nightmare: gate after gate after gate [of government approval milestones]. We have to be patient.”