WGS-7 on Delta 4
The WGS-7 Delta 4 Payload fairing at Decatur Production Ops. Credit: ULA

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is considering building a three-satellite constellation to replenish its wideband satellite communications system, according to briefing slides and correspondence obtained by SpaceNews.

While the discussion is in the early stages, the idea has alarmed some commercial satellite operators, who for years have been trying to win a greater share of Defense Department business. A new constellation would provide additional bandwidth for the military and theoretically minimize the opportunity for commercial operators to sell wideband communications services to the Pentagon.

The three-satellite  replacement  under consideration would follow the 10-satellite Wideband Global Satcom system, which has seven Boeing-built WGS satellites already on orbit with three set to launch in 2016, 2017 and 2018. But the Air Force stressed that the concept is only notional at this point.

“The three satellite constellation is one potential approach to meeting part of DoD’s future wideband SATCOM requirements,” Maj. Mary Danner Jones, an Air Force spokeswoman, said in response to questions from SpaceNews.

Air Force briefing slides presented to industry in January mentioned a so-called “3 ball replacement”  as part of a broader discussion of experimental approaches to buying commercial satellite bandwidth.

In a Feb. 26 email, Danner Jones said few decisions have been made on the satellites including whether they would be part of the WGS program or a new start, when they would launch, if they would be funded through international partners, or who would build them. Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California, is the prime contractor on the WGS program.

The constellation was mentioned in the slides to “solicit industry’s thoughts,” Danner Jones said.

The Air Force would make a decision on the constellation after the Pentagon completes a one-year study on the Defense Department’s wideband needs, Danner Jones said. That study, known as an analysis of alternatives, is expected to kick off this fall. The three-satellite constellation would be more likely to emerge as a recommended approach if  the study is due on an “abbreviated” schedule, the slides said.

The Air Force told SpaceNews earlier this month that it continues to pursue international partners for the WGS satellite constellation and “potential follow-on systems.”

The follow-on satellites came as a surprise to some industry officials because they were not mentioned in the Air Force’s budget for fiscal year 2017, which was released Feb. 9. In the latest budget documents, the service set aside no funding for the WGS program in 2020 or 2021.

Pentagon leaders have met with commercial satellite operators in recent months to gain their input on the study and Congress has asked for a progress report in March 2017. Jeffrey Rowlison, vice president of government affairs at SES Government Solutions, said industry has been given “every indication” that all viable alternatives, including commercial satellites, will be given fair consideration.

On Feb. 25, Joe Vanderpoorten, the head of the Air Force Space & Missile Systems Center’s Pathfinder Program Office, invited representatives of SES, Intelsat General Corp., and Eutelsat America, among others, to attend a March 10  workshop near the Pentagon to discuss WGS options in the context of the Air Force’s upcoming experimental bandwidth procurement pathfinder effort.

“We will be focusing primarily on discussions regarding the Pathfinder #3 effort but will also discuss the upcoming Wideband Analysis of Alternatives for replacement or supplement of the WGS constellation.,” Vanderpoortern’s invitation said.

Still, the fact that the Air Force would broach the idea of new satellites before the WGS analysis of alternatives has begun troubled some providers, many of whom are already worried the Pentagon will stick with building dedicated satellites instead of allowing commercial satellite operators to meet more of its bandwidth needs.

“Consideration of any such system would be tantamount to preemptive action ahead of the wideband [analysis of alternatives] that DoD is working on,” said Philip Harlow, president and chief operating officer of X-band satellite operater Xtar. “It would also undermine the work that commercial satellite operators have been engaged in with the military to propose contracting mechanisms and operational engagement to the benefit of DoD.  It is a backdoor way for DoD to simply push the re-do button on WGS, without really looking at any cost-saving alternatives.”

Other providers echoed that fear.

Skot Butler, vice president of satellite networks and space services for Intelsat General Corp., said he worried one approach could “become a foregone conclusion before all options were properly vetted.” Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, senior vice president of Inmarsat Government Services, said for the Air Force to “pre-suppose” the constellation before the wideband study begins “indicates how difficult this cultural shift within the DoD will be.”

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.