Commentary | WGS Sales to Allies Undermine U.S. Comsatcom Industry

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The overseas combat operations of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down just as the Department of Defense has begun to focus on making more efficient use of dwindling budgets and scarce resources. Key DoD leaders, including those at the U.S. Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, are thinking creatively and working proactively to apply the lessons learned from more than a decade of successful commercial support for critical military satellite communications. They have spoken broadly of the efficiency and effectiveness of the capabilities provided by commercial satellites.

And yet at the same time, the U.S. Air Force is pursuing international partnerships to support its own Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) constellation, a constellation that is arguably outdated, expensive and inefficient. This effort by the Air Force is undermining the business of U.S. commercial satellite operators and making their own government their biggest competitor on the international market. It is also shortchanging allied governments by bringing them into what are essentially commercial relationships with the DoD and making them pay for outdated technology at above market cost.

Recently, the Space and Missile Systems Center established an International Milsatcom Division that was tasked, among other missions, with securing foreign government investments in the WGS system. Certainly, promoting foreign military satellite sales on behalf of U.S. defense contractors can serve U.S. interests. In this case, however, the division’s WGS promotion sacrifices a critical U.S. policy objective, to adopt a more efficient and effective commercial satellite acquisition strategy, in favor of government’s additional investment into its own communications systems. 

The WGS international partnership model is a mistake. This model is tantamount to asking our allies to divert their own increasingly scarce resources to capabilities that they could acquire more cost-effectively from trusted commercial operators — in the U.S. and abroad. This directly undermines a critical U.S. private-sector industry and a healthy and vibrant global marketplace for commercial satellite services. Why should U.S. allies be tied to only one system — WGS — and be obligated to pay far more than necessary for capabilities available from proven commercial sources? 

WGS was designed in the late 1990s and has seen only minor updates to its capabilities since then. The Air Force claims that each WGS satellite, if perfectly paired with an optimized ground segment, could provide approximately 2.4 gigabits per second of throughput to our warfighters in a benign environment. This WGS performance pales in comparison with a typical commercial satellite launched within the last 10 years. And it does not come close to the capacity of the latest generation of commercial high-throughput satellites, which are commonly launched with throughput capabilities in excess of 100 gigabits per second. 

Trusted commercial satellite operators can securely offer capacity that exceeds WGS’s limited resilience features through partnerships with the same experienced U.S. industrial base that supplies military satellites to the U.S. government. Additional investments in the technically outdated WGS constellation — even those disguised as cost sharing with allied governments — simply feed the DoD’s financially and operationally unjustified desire for ownership. WGS offers nothing commercial infrastructure cannot do as well — or better. 

There certainly is a role for international partnerships between the DoD and allied governments. The DoD unquestionably should “own and operate” specialized military satellite systems for which there are no commercial alternatives, and that provide uncompromising availability in support of critical government missions. These systems are ideal for international partnerships. For example, the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) system supports highly sensitive U.S. strategic missions such as presidential and national communications, even in a nuclear environment, and also supports tactical missions in especially hostile electromagnetic interference/radio frequency interference environments. Neither WGS nor its more efficient commercial satellite counterparts can or would wish to offer this type of capability. Both are nonprotected, broadband satellite communications systems with limited resistance to jamming attacks that are designed to operate in nonnuclear environments. 

Cost-sharing partnerships for exquisite, commercially infeasible capabilities make great sense. Soliciting other governments to buy into outdated technology, and at greater cost than what is available on the commercial market, does not.

No one can predict the precise volume of commercial satellite capacity that the U.S. government and its allies will require in the future. However, there is no doubt that commercial providers will continue to play a critical and primary role in the DoD and allied space communications architecture — just as they have done successfully for over a decade of significant military operations. Ideally, governments will continue to rely on commercial satellite infrastructure and acknowledge the same level of partnership with commercial satellite firms as they do with other defense contractors. Such relationships are crucial to the aims of the U.S. National Space Policy and National Security Space Strategy, which include using commercial satellites rather than developing or deploying duplicative government systems.

As the DoD addresses its ongoing satellite communications needs, military leaders should keep in mind the effort by the United States in the 1990s to get the government out of the business of operating commercial satellites. Ironically, in view of today’s WGS promotion efforts, the U.S. led the international movement to privatize former intergovernmental satellite organizations Intelsat and Inmarsat. Policymakers at that time recognized that the satellite market no longer needed direct government control. 

When fully deployed, the WGS constellation will number 10 satellites. With the Air Force seeking international partners for its continued expansion, WGS is competing directly with the very industry the United States worked to fully privatize in the 1990s.  The United States was forward-thinking and market-oriented then. Why not now? 

The U.S. should forge closer satellite communications relationships with its allies where it counts most: expanding the existing AEHF program and similar protected systems to include new international partners beyond Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The unmatched capabilities and extremely high costs of the AEHF system are uniquely suited to governmental military missions, investments and control. But at the same time, the Air Force must understand that by promoting investments in WGS by foreign governments it is undermining the U.S. commercial satellite communications industry. This misguided policy threatens the health and competitiveness of commercial satellite operators — and their ability to continue effectively supporting our warfighters as they have done for over a decade. 

 

Andrew Ruszkowski is chief commercial officer for XTAR.