Each time a new WGS satellite is launched, it strikes me to read the media coverage. I find it nearly always includes quotes from DoD representatives claiming that WGS has 10 times the capacity of a DSCS satellite, or that WGS is the DOD’s highest capacity communications satellite system. These claims, while technically accurate, are misleading and not relevant in today’s world of high-throughput satellites and constrained budgets. Widely reported and sometimes without deeper investigation, they detract from the real issue: WGS does not offer now, nor will the planned constellation when fully deployed, the same throughput and capacity which can be gained on many commercial satellites.
There are plenty of examples of media coverage like this – some new, some old. Let’s put aside the fact that, as far as survivability, WGS satellites are, in important ways, less capable than the DSCS system they are replacing. DSCS birds are hardened against nuclear attack while their WGS “replacements” have no greater capability to resist such attacks than any COMSATCOM satellite.
Instead, let’s focus on bandwidth. Designed in 1995 with only minor updates to its capabilities since then, each WGS satellite is reported to provide at least 2.4 Gbps of throughput to the warfighter via its X- and Ka-band payloads – for a combined total of 1.5 GHz of space segment capacity. (I’ll be generous and accept WGS proponents’ throughput claims even when USAF personnel themselves report disappointing results in actual throughputs achieved.) This WGS performance pales in comparison to a typical COMSATCOM satellite launched within the last ten years!
XTAR’s own satellite, XTAR-EUR at 29.0 E.L., was launched in 2005 and flies with an 864 MHz X-band payload with a potential throughput of 2.4 Gbps. This is equivalent to WGS even without a Ka-band payload. A more recent example is ViaSat-1. Launched in 2011 and currently operating at 115.1 W.L., ViaSat-1 is the first in a growing category of commercial birds often referred to as “High Throughput Satellites.” It provides an astonishing 140 Gbps of potential throughput. That’s 58 times greater than WGS claims!
I encourage the media to dig even deeper when reporting on WGS. The devil is in the details. The media – and lawmakers – have a responsibility to question DoD claims of WGS’ performance. Is the government getting the most for its money – or even close to it? Why launch more systems which are based on old technology? Today’s warfighters and taxpayers deserve more.