Air Force prepares to launch WGS-10 as negotiations with Boeing continue over future satellites
Update: ULA announced March 9 that the WGS-10 launch has been rescheduled to Friday, March 15.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force on Wednesday will launch a Wideband Global Satcom satellite aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 medium rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
This will be the 10th satellite of the WGS constellation that provides broadband communications for the U.S. military and allies. Boeing was selected as the WGS manufacturer in 2001. The first satellite was launched in 2007.
Up until a year ago, the Air Force had planned to make WGS-10 the last of the constellation and had been studying alternatives such as buying commercial broadband services from the private sector. But Congress had other ideas. On grounds that the Air Force was lagging in developing a strategy for acquiring satellite broadband into the future, appropriators out of nowhere inserted $600 million into the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2018 budget for the procurement of WGS-11 and WGS-12.
That was March 2018. A year later, the production of WGS-11 and WGS-12 remains on hold pending contract negotiations between the Air Force and Boeing. Sources said a deal should be signed soon and any agreement would have to be approved by defense appropriators.
The process of contracting for WGS-11 and WGS-12 hit unexpected snags after Congress added $600 million for the satellites but no money for launches. When the Air Force acquires satellites, it also allocates funds in its budget separately for the launches. But WGS-11 and WGS-12 were last minute congressional add-ons that the Air Force had not requested, and Congress punted the launch problem to the Air Force.
In directing the Air Force to buy two satellites it did not want, Congress put the service in the tough spot of having to find money for two launches that would have to be competitively awarded. Appropriators in the fiscal year 2019 omnibus funding bill directed the Air Force to submit a plan within 90 days for how it would get both satellites produced and launched into orbit.
An Air Force spokesman said the service could not comment about the status of the contract. A Boeing spokesman said the company is “actively working with the Air Force on a path forward for WGS” and referred any other questions to the Air Force. The Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal year 2020 scheduled to be released next week might provide some clues on how this issue is being resolved.
Congressional and industry sources who spoke with SpaceNews on condition of anonymity said contract delays for military satellites are not unusual but this one is especially tricky. As part of the negotiating process, the Air Force asked Boeing — which owns half of ULA — to propose alternative options to provide WGS satellites and cover the launch for $600 million, these sources said.
WGS satellites are estimated to cost about $340 million each. Launch prices can range from $200 million to $300 million per satellite. One source suggested that a compromise solution might be for the Air Force to pay Boeing to build one WGS satellite and handle the launch for less than $600 million. If the defense appropriations committees agree to such plan, the Air Force would take control of the satellite once it’s on orbit, shifting much of the risk and the burden to the contractor.
A one-satellite solution might satisfy congressional committees, another source said, if it’s a higher capacity satellite that would provide at least twice the bandwidth of current WGS satellites. When appropriators added $600 million for two WGS’s they made it clear they were unhappy with the Air Force’s long-term plans to improve broadband communications services for military users. WGS provides more than 75 percent of the military’s tactical wideband communications.
The Air Force 45th Space Wing will support the WGS-10 launch March 13 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 37. The Delta 4 medium rocket has one hydrogen-fueled common booster core, four solid rocket motors and a Delta Cryogenic Second Stage.
WGS-10 will be the eighth flight of the Delta 4 in the medium configuration, all of which have been WGS missions. WGS-10 will be the 39th launch of the Delta 4 since it was introduced in 2002. Boeing delivered the satellite in November. It was hoisted aboard the Delta 4 rocket Feb. 26. The fully assembled rocket is 66.4 meters (218 feet) tall.