WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is discussing the possibility of building at least two more Wideband Global Satcom communications satellites with funding from potential international partners, Boeing Network and Space Systems President Roger Krone said May 13.
Krone said in a briefing with reporters he believes there is enough international appetite for additional satellites.
“We have line of sight on at least two more,” Krone said. “Those may not be bought by the Air Force. Just like WGS-6 was bought by the Australians. Lots of discussion we’re party to, but it’s more government to government.”
Capt. Matthew Stines, a spokesman for the secretary of the Air Force, had no immediate comment on the likelihood of additional WGS orders.
Australia invested approximately $700 million in WGS-6, the last of the second three-satellite block in the series. In exchange, Australia’s military will have access to the full 10-satellite constellation at a level proportional to its investment.
The Air Force has invested an estimated $4 billion in its own constellation of X- and Ka-band Wideband Global Satcom satellites, which are being built by El Segundo, California-based Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems. Six of the 10 planned WGS satellites are now in orbit.
The constellation’s seventh satellite, WGS-7, is expected to launch in mid-2015, according to Air Force budget documents. Among the remaining WGS satellites under development, WGS-9 is being built thanks to an investment by a five-country consortium of Denmark, Canada, New Zealand, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said in January the Air Force is conducting a study on the future of wideband communication systems. That study is expected to be finished in late summer or fall. But in public speeches this year, he has repeatedly questioned whether the WGS service could be turned over to commercial providers.
“Do we want to continue with the military dedicated constellation?” Shelton said in January. “Can we turn either a portion or all of this over to a commercial provider and contract for a service?”
For their part, commercial operators, frustrated with the service’s dependence on the constellation, say they can offer many of the same technical capabilities as WGS but at less cost to the Air Force.
“The U.S. government and foreign governments do need additional satellite resources as demand continues to grow,” said Philip Harlow, president and chief operating officer of Xtar LLC of Herndon, Virginia, which operates X-band satellites and markets the capacity to government customers. “Is paying a huge premium for 10-year-old technology that will only be available close to 2020 the best use of precious government budgets, when commercial high-throughput satellites with greater capabilities than this outdated platform are increasingly available?”
Krone said some of the reforms Shelton has talked about require a different acquisition model for WGS.
“That could be a commercial satellite hosted payload or it could be buying [milsatcom] as a service,” Krone said. “All of which Boeing would be interested in playing. This is our bread and butter. “
He said WGS is “as commercial a program as I have with the Air Force.”
International partnerships are playing an increasing role in the Air Force’s move to boost its resiliency. Already, Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have contributed more than $270 million to the Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites, which are used in part for nuclear command and control.
Additionally, Lockheed Martin, in concert with the Pentagon, is looking to drum up interest among U.S. allies in the next-generation satellite communications system it is building for the U.S. Navy as means of sustaining the existing production line until the service is ready to procure more.
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