Canada’s WGS Investment Awaits Multination Commitment

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LONDON — Canada’s Department of National Defence is awaiting a Dec. 15 deadline for five nations to join the U.S.-led Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) X- and Ka-band military communications system before committing more than $450 million to the project over a decade or so, a Canadian defense official said Nov. 30.

While Canada has concluded that joining WGS with four other nations — Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and New Zealand — makes financial and operational sense, it will not proceed unless its four partners make similar commitments by signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU).

“What we have essentially decided together is to purchase a ninth WGS satellite,” Lt. Col. Abde Bellahnid, the Canadian Defence Department’s director of space requirements, said. “We have made our decision but we will know more after the 15th, when the MOU is supposed to be signed by the five governments.”

Unlike the government of Australia, which has agreed to purchase a WGS satellite on its own in return for access to the global network, Canada and the four other nations are combining their efforts to finance a WGS spacecraft. They too would then get access to the entire global constellation.

The Canadian government has agreed to spend some 477 million Canadian dollars ($462 million) on what it calls its Mercury Global military satellite telecommunications project, which for now is centered on the U.S. WGS constellation. The investment total includes the entire program costs over a decade or so, including ground terminals.

Addressing the Global Milsatcom conference organized by SMi Group here Nov. 30, Bellahnid said Canadian military planners have concluded that the difficulties they have encountered in securing commercial satellite bandwidth during emergency deployments of late will not improve. Similarly, prices are not likely to go down.

At the same time, he said, Canadian military demand for satellite bandwidth is rising, making reliance on commercial capacity increasingly untenable.

One forecast, he said, showed that Canadian forces would be spending 100 million Canadian dollars annually on satellite bandwidth as of 2022, and even this estimate may be too low given the increased use of streaming video feeds from unmanned aerial vehicles.

Hence the decision on WGS: “The status quo was not acceptable,” Bellahnid said. “It would cost too much — and the 100 million dollars a year was just for the satellite segment. Considering the size of our forces, that’s a lot. After a lengthy study, in 2011 we chose WGS based on a good business case. We have made our choice on the space segment, and we have approval to sign the MOU. But nothing is signed yet.”

Bellahnid declined to discuss details of the WGS agreement but said it would give the new partners immediate access to the WGS network. They would not have to wait until “their” WGS satellite is operational. “We get access as soon as we sign the MOU,” he said.

Bellahnid declined to speculate on whether the four other nations would commit to WGS, whose satellites are being built by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif. Three WGS satellites are in orbit, three more are under construction and Boeing in September received a contract to build a seventh and develop long-lead items for an eighth.

Several government officials here said Denmark, Luxembourg and the Netherlands are under at least some pressure to scrap WGS in favor of a yet-undefined European satellite telecommunications project, starting with capacity available now onboard satellites developed for France, Britain and Italy, among others.

Canada and the Netherlands are partners, as is Britain, in the U.S. Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) military satellite telecommunications constellation, whose prime contractor is Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif.

Canada’s AEHF investment is estimated to total 555 million Canadian dollars through 2025, of which 204 million Canadian dollars is paying for Canada’s 5 percent share of the AEHF satellite system. “We invested $200 million to access an $11 billion U.S. space segment,” Bellahnid said.

Canadian civil and military space authorities have been debating a project called the Polar Communications and Weather (PCW) system for several years. Canada’s MDA Corp. has led studies on costs and technical design. The tentative design includes two Ka-band communications satellites in highly elliptical orbit to provide communications in the Canadian Arctic to link a region that is beyond the reach of geostationary orbiting satellites.

Bellahnid agreed the PCW decision has been delayed, but he said the project is not dead.

Similarly, he said, Canada sooner or later will need a next-generation narrowband communications system — to serve its future F-35 fighter jet fleet, if nothing else.

“This is still at a very early stage of analysis,” Bellahnid said. “We need something around 2018. Could we use a regional hosted payload, or enter a long-term commercial lease? Perhaps join an existing constellation? Options are open. But the fact is that we have fighter airplanes and we’re going to need communications.”