Military Space Quarterly | Canada Readies WGS Ground Station Procurement

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VICTORIA, British Columbia — Canada plans to solicit proposals in August to build up to three permanent ground stations for access to the U.S. Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) military satellite communications system.

The new facilities will expand Canadian access to the 10-satellite WGS system, which is built by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif., and provides broadband links in Ka- and X-band frequencies reserved for military use. Canada, an investor in WGS, currently accesses the system via interim domestic and allied ground stations.

Evaluations of the bids for the permanent facilities will take place in the fall and a contract is expected to be awarded in April 2014, Lisa Blahey, a spokeswoman for Canada’s Department of National Defence, stated in an email to SpaceNews. The ground stations would be built by October 2016.

Canada announced in late 2011 it was joining the WGS program, contributing $337 million for construction of the ninth satellite as well as operational support costs. Canada is investing as part of a consortium that includes four other countries, all of which will gain access to the system in proportion to their individual contributions: Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and New Zealand. 

This was the second time U.S. allies stepped up with a major investment in WGS. Australia in 2007 agreed to fund construction of the sixth satellite in the series, which is slated for launch in August.

In exchange for its financial contribution, the Canadian Forces will obtain approximately 20 years of global access to the WGS system. 

Canada’s new WGS ground stations together are expected to cost around 81 million Canadian dollars ($80 million), which is not part of the government’s initial $337 million investment in the program. Canadian space industry representatives say it is likely that two stations will be built in Canada and one in Europe, probably in the Netherlands, although no details are available yet about the exact locations.

In the meantime, the Canadian military has already been using the WGS network through interim satellite ground terminals or through allied systems, Blahey said. That use began in May 2012.

“The Wideband Global Satcom system is already being used to strengthen secure communications with deployed elements and will enhance cooperation with our closest military friends and allies around the world,” Blahey said.

For the early access, the Defence Department acquired three multiband, medium-aperture terminals that are designed to be transportable. Telesat of Ottawa, Ontario, delivered two of the terminals in 2012 and the third in March of this year.

Each is capable of supporting up to eight individual communication links. One terminal is located at Canadian Forces Base Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the other at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, British Columbia, Blahey said. The third terminal is not yet operational and is undergoing testing in Kingston, Ontario, but will be subsequently installed somewhere in the Ottawa area.

“They are transportable ‘hub’ terminals that can be set up in a ‘rapid-deployable’ configuration … or more permanently as we have done, where they are mounted in a radome on cement pad,” Blahey said.

She said the Canadian military missions in Afghanistan and Libya highlighted the need for secure exchange of information between headquarters, formations and units.

In an April 2010 interview, Col. Andre Dupuis, head of the directorate of space development in Canada’s Department of National Defence, said military planners had been looking at options for ensuring that they have satellite bandwidth available when and where they need it without being hostage to the spot market for commercial capacity. “Trying to acquire satcom at the last minute as you are going into a theater of operations is extremely expensive,” Dupuis said at the time.

The Canadian military was spending approximately $25 million per year on satellite communications capacity acquired from commercial operators. The cost to maintain that status quo was expected to increase significantly during the next 20 years, according to military officers.

While examining its options for future satellite communications requirements, the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces considered two other alternatives: continue leasing bandwidth as needed, and pursue long-term commercial leases in accordance with ongoing and anticipated operational requirements. Based on its analysis, it was determined that pursuing the WGS partnership was the most operationally and cost-effective option, military officials said.