Updated 7/25 10:09 EDT a.m.

WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Air Force prepares for the scheduled Aug. 7 launch of its sixth Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) communications satellite, the service is looking for future international space partnerships of the type that helped pay for this satellite.

Australia invested approximately $700 million in WGS-6, the last of the second block of satellites in the series. In exchange, Australia’s military will have access to the full 10-satellite constellation at a level that is in proportion to its investment.

The arrangement is “very consistent with what the [U.S. Department of Defense] wants to do” on future constellations in a difficult and uncertain budget environment, said Dave Madden, executive director of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, which procures U.S. military space systems. “When budgets get tight, it forces people to think.”

During a prelaunch conference call with reporters July 24, Madden described the outlook for similar arrangements in the future as “very promising.” Already the WGS-9 is being built thanks to an investment by a five-country consortium of Denmark, Canada, New Zealand, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Todd Harrison, senior fellow for the nonprofit Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, shares the sentiment. In a July 24 report dubbed “The Future of Milsatcom,” Harrison said including allies on future space programs offers benefits including stability, cost savings and improved interoperability.

“International partners can, in principle, help improve program stability by broadening the set of stakeholders in a program. In addition to offsetting some of the costs, including international partners has the added advantage of improving interoperability between U.S. and partner forces,” the report says. “The inclusion of Australia in the WGS program is notable because it may have prevented a break in production between satellites five and six.” 

Harrison also points to another advantage of partnerships: disincentive for unfriendly nations to launch anti-satellite attacks.

“It would complicate the planning of potential adversaries because an attack against any protected satellites or hosted protected payloads would be an attack against all of the partner nations in the network and thus run the risk of horizontal escalation,” Harrison said.

Madden said the international cooperative model can be applied even to the Air Force’s most secure communications satellites. Already, Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have contributed more than $270 million to the Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites, which are used for, among other things, nuclear command and control.

WGS-6, built by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif., will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

It will be the second WGS launch in three months — WGS-5 launched in May and is expected to be declared operational later this year. 

For Denver-based United Launch Alliance, whose Atlas and Delta rockets launch virtually all U.S. national security satellites, the upcoming mission is the second of four planned over a nine-week period. The company launched a U.S. Navy communications satellite July 19 and is scheduled to loft a classified National Reconnaissance Office spacecraft and the third AEHF satellite Aug. 28 and Sept. 25, respectively.   

Meanwhile, WGS-7, the first of the third block of WGS satellites, is expected to launch in mid-2015, according to the Air Force’s budget documents.

“We’ll be looking at improving capacity, improving anti-jam capabilities,” Madden said of the third block of WGS satellites.


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Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...