ADF Australia Satellite
Australian Defence Force personnel are shown a medium satellite communication terminal during a VIP day at Damascus Barracks in Brisbane that demonstrated new communications equipment to be acquired for the Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force. Credit: Australian Department of Defence.

WASHINGTON — The mismatch between Australia’s military space and ground infrastructure is limiting the country’s ability to fully use its satellite telecommunications infrastructure, to the frustration of the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

The ADF is concerned that some of its projects are taking so long that by the time one half of the system is ready, the other won’t be, an Australian military official said at a recent conference.

The primary example of this is a beleaguered Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) anchor ground station project that is now five years behind schedule.

“We are now currently facing a lot of constraints, including supporting current operations and exercises in terms of having sufficient anchoring capacity,” Air Vice Marshall Andrew Dowse, head of Information and Communications Technology Operations for the ADF’s Chief Information Officer Group (CIOG), said here June 29 at the Milsatcom USA conference.  

Dowse said that ground station, under construction by prime contractor BAE Systems, has taken so long that by the time it’s active, much of the technology will likely be obsolete.

“They are promising me it will finally be delivered at the end of this year, but guess what? It will be delivered exactly as specified many years ago, which means that we will get a lot of serial modems, and I’ll tell you, 95 percent of the customers I support are IP-enabled,” he said. “So, as soon as they hand it back to me, I’m going to hand it back to them and say ‘fix it’ because it’s delivering outdated technology.”

Dowse said the ADF is also behind on WGS-compliant user terminals. The ADF is migrating personnel at all its locations in the Middle East to use WGS terminals over the next 6 to 12 months.

Australia financed the construction of the WGS-6 satellite, which launched in August 2013, in exchange for getting access to a substantial amount of the satellite’s capacity over the Indian and Pacific Oceans, along with access to a smaller amount around the rest of the world. The ADF relies on WGS, along with military capacity on Optus C1, an ultra high frequency hosted payload on Intelsat 22, and commercial satcom from Inmarsat, ViaSat and SpeedCast.

Life after WGS

The ADF is starting a new program in 2019 called JP 9102 that allots two to three billion Australian dollars to fund satellite communications projects through 2029. Dowse said JP 9102 is in a formative stage today, and decisions on future investments will be linked to the U.S. Analysis of Alternatives (AoAs) for both wideband and narrowband satellite communications. Australia hopes the AoAs will help determine whether the country invests a large amount upfront like with WGS-6, or doles out smaller amounts over the course of several years.

To bide time with the ADF’s current space assets, Dowse said the ADF has agreed with Singaporean regional fleet operator Optus to place Optus C1 in an inclined orbit. In an interview with SpaceNews, Dowse said ADF is willing to accept the loss of some services — inclined orbit satellites lose contact with fixed-ground terminals as they sway in space — to extend the satellite’s life to 2027.

“What we’re doing is we are essentially sacrificing up to 12 months use with some terminal users to get an extra seven years out of the life of the satellite,” he explained. “Even while it’s in an inclined orbit, it’s still usable for some users, but not by all users.”

Mobility users such as those in aviation and maritime can still use inclined orbit satellites without much difficulty. Dowse said Optus and the ADF have come to an agreement to shift Optus C1’s orbit in 18 months.

Keeping the satellite in an inclined orbit provides extra time to fill the 156 degrees east orbital slot. By extending the life of Optus C1, Dowse said the ADF ensures funding “post-WGS to provide a future capability.”

Dowse told SpaceNews that Optus plans to move its commercial customers off of Optus C1 before shifting the satellite’s orbit, and then wants to move another satellite to that slot. Only military users will stay on Optus C1 once it is inclined, Dowse said.

Optus declined to confirm plans to shift Optus C1’s orbit or to say what satellite would serve commercial customers in its place. In a July 3 statement to SpaceNews, an Optus spokesperson said that the company “has yet to confirm specific plans to Optus C1 operations.”

“We will communicate to our customers and the market should there be any operational change in the near future,” the Optus spokesperson said.

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...