BOSTON — The U.S. Air Force has asked Boeing to begin work on additional Wideband Gapfiller communications satellites that will be equipped with upgrades improving their ability to handle intelligence traffic from unmanned aerial vehicles, according to an Air Force news release dated Oct. 17.

The Air Force will also apply stronger oversight to the program and include new incentives designed to get Boeing to meet the cost and performance goals written into the new contract, according to the Air Force news release.

Boeing won a $160 million contract in January 2001 to begin work on three satellites, with options for three more. The first three satellites and ground support equipment were expected to cost about $700 million. Exercising all three options for the upgraded satellites would bring the total value of Boeing’s work on the program to $1.1 billion, according to the Air Force news release.

Since its inception in 2001, the Wideband Gapfiller program has suffered technical problems that delayed the launch of those first three satellites. Launch of the first of the Wideband Gapfiller satellites initially was expected to occur in December 2004. Howard Chambers, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, said in an Oct. 12 interview that the program has overcome its earlier difficulty, and is now on track for the first Wideband Gapfiller launch to take place in the summer of 2007.

Boeing’s 2001 contract was awarded on a fixed-price basis, which made the company responsible for the additional cost due to technical difficulty. During the Oct. 12 interview, Chambers acknowledged that the company has lost money on its work on the first three satellites.

However, the incentives included in the upgrade plan could help the company make a profit on satellites four through six, according to a source familiar with the program.

The Air Force authorized Boeing in February to begin purchasing of parts for a fourth Wideband Gapfiller satellite, and the service expects production on that spacecraft to begin by the end of 2006, according to the Air Force news release. Advanced purchase of parts for the fifth satellite is expected to begin by the end of this year as well, according to the news release.

Each Wideband Gapfiller satellite is expected to handle more data than the entire Defense Satellite Communications constellation, Air Force Lt. Col. Adam Mortensen, program manager for the upgrade work, said in the news release.

The original plan for the Wideband Gapfiller program called for the construction of three additional satellites identical to the initial set of three satellites if the options were exercised, according Dave Garlick, a Boeing spokesman.

While the original satellites are designed to handle traffic from unmanned aerial vehicles, they can do so only at a much slower data transmission rate than the planned upgrades, Garlick said in an Oct. 19 written response to questions. While the first three satellites are capable of handling intelligence data from unmanned aerial vehicles at a rate of 137 megabits per second, the planned upgrades would make satellites four through six capable of moving this data at a rate of 311 megabits per second, significantly speeding up the time it takes to send and receive large files like high resolution imagery, Garlick said.

Despite the improved capability, the upgrade plan has raised concern among some satellite communications users. Some tactical users who primarily rely on satellites to communicate with forces on the battlefield are worried that they may have to compete with unmanned aircraft for access to the Wideband Gapfiller satellites, a Pentagon source said.

Joe Davidson, a spokesman for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, which oversees the acquisition of the Wideband Gapfiller satellites, said that the operational community was consulted in the plan to upgrade the satellites.

While the upgrade plan “will impact the capacity available to tactical users, the majority of the Ka-band payload is still available for tactical support,” Davidson said in an Oct. 20 written response to questions.

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a think tank based in Arlington, Va., said that picking up the options for the additional Wideband Gapfiller satellites is likely necessary to meet the military’s growing demand for bandwidth in advance of the launch of the Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) communications system.

While the first T-Sat spacecraft is expected to launch in 2014, that schedule might slip to the right, Thompson said. The Air Force’s budget plan for 2008, which will not be finalized until it is sent to Congress early next year, calls for requesting $2.6 billion for T-Sat in 2011, a figure that is far from realistic, particularly given the project downturn in the defense budget, he said.