The MUOS 5 satellite undergoing pre-launch inspection. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

WASHINGTON — A consortium of U.S. allies, led by Canada, could reach an agreement early next year to build a sixth Mobile User Objective System narrowband communications satellite, a top Lockheed Martin executive said March 15.

By funding a sixth satellite, the participating countries would get full access to the U.S. Navy’s MUOUS constellation, which is designed to  provide smartphone-like communications almost anywhere on the globe.

A similar model of allied participation has allowed the U.S. Air Force to expand the size of its Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellite constellation in recent years.

Mark Valerio, vice president of enterprise solutions and integration at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said in a press briefing March 15 that he believes the framework of an agreement between an undisclosed number of countries is “pretty close” and could be completed later this year or early in 2017.

The agreement would require memorandums of understanding as well as cooperation from international agencies and several Defense Department offices, but Valerio said “the Navy is on board. We’ve had meetings with them over the last couple of months and they’ve been very supportive; very, very supportive.”

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for the $7.7 billion MUOS program and has built five satellites, the last of which is an on-orbit spare and is expected to launch in May. MUOS could be declared fully operational this summer.

“Right now there is this group of countries that’s all interested in” MUOS-6, Valerio said. “If we were to build a MUOS-6 it would be for the allies. The Navy would manage it. It would require no money from the Navy. It would be funding through various allies who put up a portion of it.”

Mark Valerio Lockheed Martin Space Systems. Credit: Tom Kimmell
Mark Valerio, vice president of enterprise solutions and integration, Lockheed Martin Space Systems. Credit: Tom Kimmell

The Air Force has struck this type of deal before. Australia invested approximately $700 million in the WGS-6 satellite in exchange for access to the full constellation, which ultimately will consist of 10 satellites. Similarly, the Air Force and Boeing are building WGS-9 thanks to an investment by a five-country consortium of Denmark, Canada, New Zealand, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

“It’s a great deal for them because they can buy that capacity at a much lower cost than if they bought their own satellite,” Valerio said of the MUOS consortium. “And it’s great for the U.S. because they increase their capacity.”

Because MUOS has demonstrated the ability to maintain telephone links with an aircraft flying over the North Pole, Canada has been especially interested in the program.

Doug Loverro, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defense, said during the Satellite 2016 trade show outside Washington last week that several countries, including Canada, Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom, have expressed interest.

“They would all like to go ahead and be a part of MUOS,” he said. “They would all like to go ahead and see if they can find more money to do WGS to tide them over until they figure out where they’re going. There is a dollar problem, but in general they all know they’re going to need SATCOM … They’re looking to the U.S. government, quite frankly, for some thought leadership on this.”

In April, U.S. policy changed to allow allied governments to access to the Wideband Code Division Multiple Access payload on the MUOS satellites.

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.