Boeing to accelerate production of WGS satellites

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WGS 11 and 12 will "move on a commercial timeline," says Rico Attanasio, Boeing’s director of Department of Defense and civil navigation and communications programs.

COLORADO SPRINGS — In a surprise move last month, Congress inserted $600 million into the Pentagon’s 2018 budget for the procurement of two Wideband Global Satcom satellites made by Boeing. The company already has produced 10, and is making preparations to begin work on the 11th and 12th satellites.

The production of  two new satellites for the Air Force will “move faster” than the typical WGS schedule, said Rico Attanasio, Boeing’s director of Department of Defense and civil navigation and communications programs.

“We’ve been working with the Air Force,” he told SpaceNews in an interview at the 34th Space Symposium. “We’ve been telling them we can go fast. We can move on a commercial timeline.”

Going fast is the mantra in the military space business now. Air Force leaders are pressing contractors to work more efficiently and accelerate schedules as the military seeks to modernize its space systems.

Attanasio said the company will take advantage of new commercial buses and manufacturing techniques to produce WGS 11 and 12 faster, although for the most part, “we are continuing to build on what we’ve done with WGS over the years.”

After the final appropriations bill came out with the $600 million add-on, commercial satellite communications providers were dejected, as they were expecting the Air Force to stop buying WGS and transition to commercial services. Critics questioned the decision to spend more money on government-owned satellites that have less capacity than the latest commercial birds.

Attanasio challenged the perception that WGS has outdated technology. “WGS is not 10 or 15-year old technology,” he said. “We’ve been evolving block after block.”

The satellites have been built on commercial platforms with military payloads from the beginning, he said. The most recent WGS were built on the same commercial bus that was used for broadband provider ViaSat.

“We tweaked the payload. We put a new channelizer in WGS 8 that almost doubles the bandwidth,” said Attanasio. “We have been able to build these satellites almost on commercial timelines.”

The average schedule for WGS from start to launch has been about four years, he said. “It’s not 100 percent commercial acquisition. Some military features take more time.”

WGS 10 is almost completed, and is manifested for a United Launch Alliance flight in November. All nine currently in service still have years of operational life. The first one launched in 2007, and they all were designed to operate for 14 years.

With WGS 11 and 12, “I think we can go faster than four years,” said Attanasio. Instead of the ViaSat platform, Boeing will look at newer buses used for Global IP broadband satellites and Intelsat Epic spacecraft. The new channelizer in WGS 8 also is in the Intelsat Epic series.

The Air Force has yet to decide on payload requirements for 11 and 12. “We just started talking,” he said. These will not be high throughput satellites, however. “The government needs a mix of commercial satellites with different capabilities,” said Attanasio. “The government should be taking advantage of the options that are available. WGS brings something different.”