U.S. Air Force Targets 2016 for Outsourcing WGS Operations

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force hopes to outsource the day-to-day operation of its Wideband Global Satcom communications satellites as early as next year, according to a top service official.

The Air Force has been taking exploratory steps toward fully outsourcing most of its satellite operations for nearly a year. In theory, such a move could save money by allowing the service to reduce or possibly even eliminate much of its satellite control infrastructure, industry sources have said. It would also allow Air Force staff to concentrate on other duties.

But at a breakfast here March 11, Dave Madden, executive director of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, laid out the clearest timetable yet for such a transition.

David Madden Air Force
“I’m hoping 2016 is going to be the year we finally take the command and control for WGS and move it over to a commercial service,” David Madden, executive director of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, said. Credit: U.S. Air Force

“I’m hoping 2016 is going to be the year we finally take the command and control for WGS and move it over to a commercial service,” Madden said.

Air Force Space Command has been looking for ways to reduce its operations costs as certain Defense Department budgets have shrunk in recent years. The situation has the potential to worsen with the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration still on the table for fiscal year 2016.

Industry sources have said these pressures are pushing Space Command to explore cost-cutting measures sooner rather than later.

At the same time, Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, wants operators to spend more time on battle management and less time on the day-to-day flying of the satellites, Madden said.

Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California, is the prime contractor on the WGS program. To date, six of a planned 10 WGS satellites are in orbit.

Already, WGS launch support, checkout and other tasks are handled at a Boeing facility, Madden said. “The networks are there to do this,” he said.

If outsourcing is successful on the WGS satellites, a similar model could be applied to the Air Force’s GPS satellites, Madden said.

In September, the Air Force awarded satellite control commercialization study contracts of undisclosed amounts to Intelsat General Corp. of Bethesda, Maryland; Northrop Grumman Corp. of Falls Church, Virginia; Universal Space Network of Horsham, Pennsylvania; and Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems of Dulles, Virginia. Those Commercial Provisioning study contracts, which wrapped up in December, were used to examine scenarios for commercializing the Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN), which operates and controls many of the Defense Department’s satellites.

“We gained valuable information from the Commercial Provisioning study, which will be assimilated into our broader analysis on how to integrate operations across multiple satellite programs,” Master Sgt. Kevin Williams, a spokesman for Air Force Space Command, said in a March 5 email.

For the amount of money the Air Force is paying to sustain the WGS constellation, Madden said, the service could pay to have a commercial operator both sustain and fly the satellites. Commercials satellite operators employ just a small fraction of the staff the Air Force traditionally uses to fly satellites. In addition, Madden said, the service often trains operators only to see them move to different jobs a few years later.