The fourth WGS spacecraft. Credit: Boeing

Updated July 14 at 12:28 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Facing a budget crunch that has it scouring all possibilities for near-term cost savings, the U.S. Defense Department’s space leadership is considering deferring the launches of two wideband communications satellites currently under construction, including one that is being paid for by a consortium of U.S. allies, according to multiple sources.

The satellites in question are the last two in the U.S. Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) program, which features 10 satellites either in orbit or under construction by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California. The Air Force could defer the launches of one or both of those spacecraft, a move that would push up to $400 million in launch costs beyond the service’s five-year planning horizon, these sources said. 

Under one scenario being discussed, the Air Force would operate an eight-satellite WGS constellation, keeping the ninth and 10th satellites as ground spares for launch on an as-needed basis, the sources said.

Although the Air Force declined to confirm the discussions, such a move would be consistent with what the service is doing on other programs, notably the next-generation GPS 3 satellite navigation system, as well as the service’s rhetoric about increasing reliance on commercial capabilities to save on operating costs.  

The Air Force has invested an estimated $4 billion in the WGS satellites, the backbone of its communications fleet that provides services in the X- and Ka-bands. Six of the satellites are in orbit to date, with the seventh and eighth slated to launch in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

WGS-9, notionally scheduled for launch in 2017, is being built courtesy of a $620 million investment by Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, New Zealand and the Netherlands, who agreed to fund the satellite in exchange for proportional access to the full constellation. Congress ordered the Air Force to buy WGS-10, tentatively slated for launch in 2019, after rejecting the service’s proposal to lease the full capabilities of an unspecified commercial satellite.

Boeing spokeswoman Diana Ball said construction of both satellites is proceeding months ahead of schedule. 

It is unclear how seriously the Defense Department is considering keeping the WGS-9 and WGS-10 satellites on the ground as spares. Sources told SpaceNews the discussions have included staff at Air Force Space Command and members of the Pentagon’s Defense Space Council, a senior advisory panel.

Maj. Eric Badger, a spokesman for the secretary of the Air Forces, wrote in a July 14 email both launches remain on track. “We are not aware of any on-going studies or discussions that would alter this plan,” he said. 

Maj. Charity Weeden, assistant attache for air and space operations for the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Defence Liaison here, said Canadian officials were not aware of conversations. 

Ball said Boeing likewise was unfamiliar with any such discussions. “Ultimately the Air Force will decide when these launches occur, and how [the satellites] are used,” she said.

Senior Air Force officials have repeatedly said the service’s space programs are facing financial pressures because of shrinking budgets and the renewed threat of the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. The service has thus been increasingly open to potential cost-cutting measures including outsourcing of space-related capabilities and slowing the launches of its own constellations.

But savings achieved through deferring launches are at least partially offset by satellite storage costs and in any case are only temporary: Presumably, WGS-9 and -10 will eventually be launched to replace older, less-capable craft in the constellation, which began launching in 2007.

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. He has also repeatedly questioned whether the WGS service could be turned over to commercial providers.  

One company in particular, Inmarsat of London, is deploying a global Ka-band constellation that company officials say will be compatible if not interoperable with WGS. Xtar LLC of Herndon, Virginia, has deployed X-band capabilities similar to WGS.

Another potential factor in the Defense Department’s discussions is uncertainty over the future availability of the Russian-made RD-180 engine that powers the first stage of the Air Force’s Atlas 5 workhorse launcher. In light of that uncertainty, the Air Force is looking at shuffling its manifest to preserve the Atlas 5 for missions that require its unique capabilities. WGS satellites have launched on both the Atlas 5 and the Delta 4, the Air Force’s other mainstay rocket.

Shelton’s wideband communications study is slated to wrap up this summer or fall, which may or may not be in time to affect the Air Force’s 2016 budget request. That request, expected to be unveiled early next year, will include projections for the following four years.

Boeing executives in May said the Air Force is discussing the possibility of building at least two more WGS satellites with funding from potential international partners.

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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...