Updated Nov. 9 at 7:50 p.m. Eastern.
LONDON — The Canadian military, already a partner on two U.S. military satellite communications systems, is in discussions to use a third constellation that was until recently a U.S.-only system.
The U.S. opened MUOS, the Mobile User Objective System, to partners in 2015 after building and launching most of the system as a strictly national project. The fifth and final satellite, which was a spare, launched in 2016, completing a geostationary constellation that provides smartphone-like communications on a near-global basis.
Speaking at the 2018 Global MilSatcom conference here Nov. 8, Col. Cameron Stoltz, director of space requirements for the Canadian Armed Forces, said Canada wants access to MUOS to obtain ultra-high frequency satellite coverage 65 degrees north and south of the equator.
Stoltz said an agreement under discussion now could involve Canada paying “hundreds of millions of dollars” to leverage MUOS, but with the stipulation that Canada has assured access to the $7.4 billion constellation.
“One of the key points of us getting access to the MUOS is making sure that we have assured access to a certain amount of this capability,” he said. “As you can imagine, ourselves and our bosses are not interested in writing a big check and then not having some sort of guaranteed access.”
Canada considered co-financing a sixth MUOS satellite from prime contractor Lockheed Martin in 2016, but Stoltz said that option is “not something that we are currently actively discussing.”
Stoltz said that since MUOS is already complete, Canada is looking at using the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program to access the system instead of memorandums of understanding as was done for other U.S. military satellite constellations.
Canada agreed to pay 340 million Canadian dollars ($259.5 million at current exchange rates) for the U.S. to build an eighth Wideband Global Satcom satellite that launched in March 2017. The deal, for which 300 million Canadian dollars has been paid so far, granted the country access to the full WGS constellation.
Canada also agreed to pay $204 million Canadian dollars for guaranteed access to capacity on the U.S. Advanced Extremely High Frequency constellation of super-secure satellites. Counting space segement, user terminals, in-service support and other costs, that figure rises to $592 Canadian dollars. Canada has had access to the Advanced Extremely High Frequency constellation since 2013.
In a presentation, Stoltz said Canada hopes to have initial operational capability with a narrowband satellite system, preferably MUOS, by 2021. Stoltz said Canada has been informed that the U.S. will provide Canada assured access to MUOS, but specific details of how that will work have not been confirmed.
“We still have not had the technical meetings to determine exactly how that will play out, but it is moving forward,” he said.
One of the challenges is that MUOS is a Navy system, whereas the Wideband Global Satcom and Advanced Extremely High Frequency constellations are both Air Force programs. Stoltz said the combination of working with the Navy and arranging a Foreign Military Sales transaction instead of a memorandum of understanding has created some uncertainties about the process, but that both the U.S. and Canada are committed to making an agreement.
“There may be a few rough edges just because we haven’t done it this way before, but I do expect that it will be successful,” he said.