Like Universal Serial Bus (USB) technology, the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) system lives on, unchanging. It is satellite communications so defined, it appears in all caps. Conceived at the turn of the century and planned as a partnership between U.S. and Australian defense forces, WGS has — over the course of those 19 years — been modified, upgraded, simplified, complicated, praised, and scorned by three different U.S. presidents, dozens of primes and subcontractors, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), commercial satellite operators, and any unfortunate military officer caught giving timeline on record.
By the time you read this, WGS-10 (the tenth satellite in the system) is likely to have launched, and there are at least two more satellites coming down the pipe. The United States and its international allies will have spent more than $4 billion on the satellites. In 2018, President Donald Trump signed a $1.3 trillion spending bill that included an omnibus appropriation of $600 million set aside for WSG-11 and WGS-12. That doesn’t include the launch bill.
“We are going to move WGS-11 and -12 along as quickly and commercially as we can,” says U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson, who is then quickly echoed by the satellites’ contractor, Boeing. Commercial satellite operators and their government services divisions — lovingly referred to in federal budget documents as “alternatives” — were not happy.
Shortly after it dropped, Inmarsat Senior Vice President (SVP) for Government Strategy Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch wrote that the omnibus contradicted the visions laid out by Air Force leaders earlier that year, to change their mindsets on commercial satellite acquisition. “Even more potentially problematic, it approves of additional funding to a dated program of record while the development of a clear satellite strategy is still underway,” says Cowen-Hirsch. “Admittedly, the addition of two WGS satellites may ‘buy time’ to find the right solution going forward, just like the step-change improvements in commercial capabilities realized since TSAT’s cancellation nearly a decade ago.”
The Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT) was a $25 billion high-capacity defense network program axed by the Obama Administration in 2009. At the time, it was seen as a turning point. In hard times, such as the economic recession that began in 2008, the U.S. military would be forced to seek cheaper alternatives to secure communications infrastructure. Since then, nearly 100 U.S. Department of Defense leaders have given 100 speeches at 100 industry events about how the time to change the relationship between the government and the satellite industry was 100 days ago.
“And yet, going down the same path while the industry continues to move forward, the warfighter demands continue to grow and adversaries continue to innovate seems out of sync with the mantra of the national security leadership expectations,” says Cowen-Hirsch. “Therefore, for 2019, a strong leadership is needed to apply funding resources to take full advantage of the forward-looking architecture that commercial satellite operators and the government are collaborating upon, to optimize all of the advancements that Commercial Satcom (ComSatcom) has to offer and determine the gaps where finite smaller purpose-built capabilities may be required.”
To clarify, there’s nothing wrong with WGS technology and its functional design. In fact, the system incorporates some of the most cutting-edge aerospace technology that Boeing has ever brought to life. With each new satellite comes a list of new capabilities — Ka-band, X-band, agility, adaptability, resilience, and security. The satellite that follows enhances those capabilities and adds a few that were glanced over a few years prior. Writing about WGS this way makes it sound like a perfect system.
Global threats, unfortunately, do not occur at the system’s convenience. WGS never seems to fill all of the Pentagon’s ever-changing requirements, creating even more unfortunate — and sometimes dangerous — gaps in capability. As intelligent as the folks over at Boeing are, they cannot foresee tomorrow’s hostile actors and we are not (yet) living in a Philip K. Dick novel. Boeing is obligated to its shareholders to accept the dump truck of government cash. It would be malpractice for them to do otherwise.
What can commercial satellite operators like Intelsat General, SES Government Services, Inmarsat, OneWeb, Iridium, and others do to finally convince the government that they don’t have to spend billions of dollars and wait several years for new satellite systems? Can they help make defense spending decisions easier by offering broader managed services? Can the industry provide a beneficial co-op approach? Working together, can the commercial industry truly put forth an integrated, unified, and secure government architecture? Considering all of these questions — can the commercial satellite industry ever meet the needs of a customer that can’t seem to make a decision on what it needs?
These questions could have been descriptive copy for just about any Hosted Payload industry event during the past eight years. Remember hosted payloads? They were supposed to be the big, low-cost, managed-service alternative. So far, they have been limited to smaller, “experimental” military programs. The data collected from these experiments is limited, and so, hosted payloads have not been utilized to their full potential.
In July 2018, the GAO wrote its latest in a decade-long series of endorsements of hosted payloads as an alternative to expensive new architectures. “Commercially hosted payloads have the potential to play a role in delivering needed capabilities on orbit more quickly and at a more affordable cost than traditional Department of Defense (DOD) space acquisitions,” the agency says in its report to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee. “Centralized collection and assessment of agency-wide [Hosted Payload] data would help enable DOD to mitigate the logistical challenges inherent in matching payloads to hosts, and better position DOD to make reasoned, evidence-based decisions on whether a hosted payload would be a viable solution to meet warfighter needs. Without such knowledge, and a way for interested programs to leverage it, DOD may not be fully informed about using hosted payloads and may risk missing opportunities to rapidly and affordably address emerging threats in space.”
Remember that 2018 omnibus that set aside $600 million for WGS-11 and -12? It also just happened to cut the funding for the Air Force’s Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) study in half from $14 million to $7 million. In other words, the GAO shouldn’t hold its breath for that data, and should instead, get to work writing next year’s endorsement of commercial satellite and hosted payload alternatives. The AOA never cleared up any of the issues it was designed to address in the first place.
This isn’t an argument for the elimination of WGS. As mentioned, WGS is clearly innovative. Just this past November, Boeing scored a seven-year $383 million cost-plus-incentive-fee contract to support the Protected Tactical Enterprise Service (PTES) program through its WGS system. PTES is protected satcoms on speed — Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) 2.0 — with much-needed state-of-the-art cybersecurity and anti-jamming features. Its architecture addresses key resiliency issues and expands protected satcom capabilities beyond strategic communications — it’s cool stuff.
The complaint is that it is now nearly the spring of 2019, and there is still no explanation as to what the Air Force would do with a $600 million WGS-11 a WGS-12 satellite that they never requested in the first place, during a year in which the Pentagon promised a change in the direction of its relationship with the industry.
WGS should not be hot-keyed in whatever program our elected officials are using to create their defense budgets. It should be the reciprocating saw of the toolshed — likely “cutting it” for most situations — surrounded by other tools, leveraging the specialized expertise of the commercial satellite industry. Every year, companies like Intelsat General and SES Government Services come out with a catalog of tools that can do certain jobs better, cleaner, and sometimes, even safer. But, the government keeps going back to the reciprocating saw, and prefers to pay the expensive hospital bill for re-attaching digits.
Speaking at the SATELLITE show, Intelsat General President Skot Butler said it best — WGS works, but it’s time to spread the wealth. There’s much cheaper, yet very capable technology out there waiting to sell. Intelsat General’s customers know this, but omnibus surprises make the industry feel like they are floating in limbo. “We just want the government to articulate what we, as an industry, need to do to move beyond this,” he says. By saying this, he may be referring to that feeling of “forever.” Do the satellite industry’s government acquisition woes exist forever? Is moving forward for the Pentagon easier with eyes closed, as the song goes? Maybe someone will answer those questions next year. VS