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Would WGS International Partnerships Give DoD the Cutting Edge?

Recently, Frank Kendall warned that the U.S. military may soon fall behind in the arms technology race.  Our potential adversaries are modernizing all of their capabilities, and we are trying to strategize how to counter this progress. In the current budgetary environment, can we hold tight to the existing satellite communications framework and still achieve this goal? The answer is, probably not. The DoD’s exquisite systems cost too much and, more importantly, are outdated years before they are in use. Investing in programs, like WGS, for non-sensitive satellite communications completely fails to harness the innovation, expediency and cost-savings of the commercial market in the race to stay ahead of our adversaries.

Sadly, USSTRATCOM, coordinator of the nation’s command and control capabilities, and Boeing, WGS’ manufacturer, continue to speak publically about international funding for two additional WGS satellites. STRATCOM believes that the DoD should use more WGS and change how it buys commercial satcom. These strategies are incongruous in my opinion. Some in Air Force leadership believe international partners on WGS will bring tangible benefits to the warfighter. I question this concept. Working in coalition with partners around the world is critical for future global stability, but restricting said coalition to 10-year old technology to support this cooperation seems counter to all the goals of DoD – and their partners – strength, efficiency, and cost-effective acquisition.

Buying more WGS, with or without partners, leads the government to sacrifice other critical defense capabilities. I applaud Dr. Arati Prabhakar, Director of DARPA, as she recently talked about being behind on technological innovation and that the days of using our deep pockets as an advantage on the battlefield have come to an end. Isn’t launching more WGS (satellites) taking us further down this big-spend, low-return path? Using dollars and worldwide currencies to support this effort does not give us a technological advantage, as these precious financial resources should be used as strategically as possible. As a former military officer, I would want the right technology for the job, enabling me to stay ahead of my adversary. 

The whole milsatcom community should think about alternatives to WGS. I was pleased to see that Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Doug Loverro told Defense Daily earlier this month [April 22, 2014], “We see a sunset on WGS and we see moving to a more commercially-based capability for our normal wideband needs.” I recently returned from the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. In sidebar conversations, there is some clear momentum for commercial satcom to become a well-planned component of the overall milsatcom architecture instead of the after-thought it has been for years. Yet, headlines about the viability of even more (money wasted on) WGS continue to sidetrack the process.

Commercial satellite operators like XTAR can provide more advanced capabilities and constant innovation to give the warfighter the right tools at the right price. Doesn’t this lead us in the right direction against our adversaries, or will the expensive, bespoke systems of the past be front and center, outdated technology and all?