WGS Lessons Should Prompt DoD to Reconsider How to Meet Bandwidth Demand

Even with U.S. troops out of Iraq and their presence in Afghanistan winding down, demand for satellite communications by the American military is expected to grow steadily for at least the next decade. In an attempt to meet some of this demand, the Department of Defense in 2007 began launching its projected fleet of 10 Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) satellites to augment capacity of other military spacecraft operating in the X- and Ka-band. But with six of the spacecraft now in orbit, the DoD has struggled to get enough data through the satellites to meet even the fundamental baseline specifications for WGS throughput.

For more than a decade, the DoD has been slow to respond to evidence that commercial satellite systems are in many ways superior to those launched and operated by the U.S. government. The overly-ambitious and expensive Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT) program floundered for years until finally being cancelled in 2009. That made the WGS, thought to be merely a gap-filler pending launch of TSAT, the DoD’s largest satcom system.

But a recent article in Space News, quoting a U.S. Air Force official, reported that “The current WGS satellites each generate 2 to 3.5 Gbps of throughput. This is less than the 3.6 Gbps baseline specification. But according to an Air Force Selected Acquisition Report published this year, the current estimate is that each satellite is delivering even less than that — around 2.1 Gbps of throughput.”

The commercial satellite industry has been able to develop High Throughput Satellites (HTS) that will accommodate 5 to 8 times the amount of capacity possible on each WGS satellites. Intelsat’s EpicNG satellites enable 25 to 60 Gbps of throughput per satellite. This EpicNG capacity can be adapted to meet the military’s evolving needs. And EpicNG is backwards compatible, supporting operations using today’s Ku-band remote terminals that the U.S. military already has in place aboard its ships and at installations around the globe.

According to the article The Military’s Second Chance For a Bandwidth Fix in Defense News, today’s DoD utilizes commercial satellites to transmit approximately 80% of its communications. The bandwidth demand for DoD is expected to rise 74% in the next decade. With the lower-than-expected throughput being experienced with WGS satellites, the DoD needs to be thinking seriously about commercial alternatives in order to meet its growth needs over the next decade. The best application of funds is to take advantage of the commercial satellite provider’s agility and speed to market. Let the commercial side continue to develop HTS spacecraft, taking advantage of the latest technological advances (antenna theory, modulation, channelizer-switch, etc.).

The DoD and its contracting processes are notoriously slow and unable to make adjustments in program specifications as quickly as the commercial side. While the DoD should go ahead and complete its planned WGS constellation, these 10 satellites should comprise the last full-blown military constellation. Going forward, the DoD should take full advantage of the new commercial high-throughput satellites to meet its increasing communications needs in a time-efficient manner before spending unnecessary taxpayer dollars on a follow-on wideband satellite network.

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