t is hard not to view with some suspicion the hackneyed and often self-serving “win-win” label that routinely gets slapped onto business deals and other partnerships by the parties involved. But in the case of Australia’s recently announced agreement to buy into the U.S. Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) military satellite communications system, it is hard to think of a more apt description.
According to the U.S. Air Force, the Australian Defence Ministry will invest $707 million in the WGS system, a sum that will cover the construction and launch of a sixth satellite and associated infrastructure. In return, the Australians will get access to the full constellation, the backbone of the new-generation U.S. military satellite communications architecture, beginning with the first satellite, which was
launched successfully Oct. 10.
The deal is not entirely without precedent. Other U.S. allies have invested or have plans to invest in the Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency secure satellite communications system in exchange for access, for example.
But the WGS arrangement is pioneering in that Australia’s contribution will make a significant improvement to the overall system, to everyone’s benefit. A sixth satellite will increase the WGS constellation’s capacity to serve bandwidth-starved forces while making it less vulnerable to disruption due to individual launch or on-orbit failures.
At a time when the U.S. military relies on leased commercial capacity for about 80 percent of its satellite bandwidth needs – which are expected to continue growing at a very high rate as the Pentagon’s overarching strategy of information dominance manifests itself in the force structure – this is welcome news indeed.
Australia, which is located in a remote corner of the world but has forces on the ground in places like Iraq and East Timor in Indonesia, will have the benefit of a global, secure constellation for the price of one, albeit expensive, satellite. The WGS system will support not only Australia’s coalition operations but also its own national defense needs.
More broadly, this arrangement could be a model for future military space cooperation between the United States and its close allies. The United States has invested tens of billions of dollars over the years in various space capabilities, including communications, navigation and missile warning. With a relatively small piggyback investment, U.S. allies could take advantage of these capabilities while relieving some of the cost burden the United States must bear to maintain them.
Europe has been moving in the direction of independence from the United States for many of these capabilities, but for individual allies like Australia, Japan and Canada, this is not always practical.
This is not to suggest that the United States immediately open the floodgates to allied investment in its space systems, many of which are highly sensitive; any such deal must be weighed on its individual merits. But the WGS buy-in stands out as an example of
the type of innovative partnership deal that the United States and its allies should always be pursuing.