Boeing, Air Force Discuss WGS Improvements

Boeing WGS F4, F5, F6

WGS Block 2 spacecraft integration. Photo: Boeing

[Via Satellite 05-05-2016] Boeing, prime contractor for the U.S. Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) system, has been working on a series of improvements to make the government-operated system more effective. Originally launched as the Wideband Gapfiller Satellite series, WGS got a name-change when the program shifted to a worldwide network. WGS reached global coverage in 2013, when WGS 5 launched aboard a Delta 4 rocket. As more is demanded from the system, Boeing and the Air Force are collaborating to increase its capability.

Boeing is the manufacturing partner for all 10 spacecraft in the military satellite communications (milsatcom) system. Dan Hart, vice president of government satellite systems at Boeing, told Via Satellite that the move to use a fixed-price and commercial-like operating model with the Air Force for the WGS follow-on contract has lowered the cost of WGS orders.

“If you look at the cost of WGS over the years, the cost actually came down with F7, F8 and F9, and also with F10. We have a steadily decreasing cost for WGS. A spacecraft for the earlier blocks was averaging a little over $400 million. F7, F8 and F9 had a value of $350 million. F10 actually came down to about $340 million,” said Hart.

He attributed much of this shift to leveraging more of an “insight-engagement model” with the government, making interaction between Boeing leadership and the Air Force more efficient. Technological improvements are the other major half.

“We’ve utilized a lot of our factory efficiencies. We utilized different modes of operating with the government, which mirrors how we operate with commercial satellite operators, and we’ve gotten the cost down while increasing the capabilities of the satellites,” he said.

Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) commander and program executive officer for space, told Via Satellite that the Air Force has worked with Boeing to identify more efficient ways to produce and operate the satellites, including leveraging commercial practices to the extent possible.

“Specific details are proprietary and cannot be shared; however, overall efforts led to $150 million in savings on the WGS 7 through WGS 10 production contract,” he said.

One of those improvements is the digital payload and channelizer Boeing is providing for WGS satellites. Hart said this payload is on all seven of the first WGS spacecraft, and has increased significantly in capability.

“F1 through F7 have very similar digital payloads that add a lot of flexibility. Starting with F8 we went to the next generation of channelizer and digital payload. Starting from F8 we essentially double the bandwidth of the satellite. That’s just a matter of doing an upgrade turn as we do across our product line,” he explained. 

The WGS F7 satellite launched in July 2015, and F8 is scheduled for later this year. Hart said the digital payload came about in parallel for commercial and government customers, with aspects tailored specifically for each. Intelsat is using the commercial variant for the operator’s EpicNG High Throughput Satellites (HTS).

“WGS 8, 9, and 10 have incorporated an upgrade to the payload channelizer by implementing a new generation of integrated circuits, resulting in a 90 percent increase in satellite bandwidth,” said Greaves.

Boeing’s next major project for the military satellites is the WGS Space Systems Resiliency Upgrade. Earlier this year the Air Force awarded Boeing a $55 million contract modification for an X-Band anti-jam upgrade. The company is tasked with boosting WGS resiliency to electronic threats both unintentional and hostile.

Hart said the X-band upgrade, sometimes referred to as the Mitigation and Anti-Jam Enhancements (MAJE), focuses mainly on the ground segment.

“All of our WGS satellites have an X-band phased array that has a lot of flexibility. The main focus of this particular activity is to enable the system to locate jammers and then adapt the beams to neutralize those. That’s the primary aspect. There are some other features that can be brought in as well. It’s being able to shape and adapt the beams and bring in other features,” he said.

Hart said the U.S. government-developed Protected Tactical Waveform (PTW) is a complementary step to addressing jamming to WGS. The PTW applies error correction and spreading algorithms to wideband signals, resulting in a waveform that is more robust and can get through jamming more capably than current signals. Greaves said increased resilience with WGS will come from PTW and these anti-jam efforts.

Once the X-band upgrade is complete, all WGS satellites will be able to use this technique, according to Hart. He said the changes will affect the hubs used to handle tasking procedures. There could also be a lateral benefit to WGS’ Ka-band anti-jamming strength.

“We do have some similar work that is in discussion. It hasn’t been funded yet, but it is likely to be turned on for the Ka-band side. It’s a little bit different, but it utilizes some similar principles,” Hart added.

Greaves said is no overlap between the PTW and the anti-jam work Boeing is currently undertaking. The two capabilities will be complementary and neither capability will be dependent on the other to be effective.

While collaborating to improve the WGS system, the Air Force is also in the process of conducting its Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) study, which will help the government determine what capabilities it can field in the future. Greaves said the Air Force is factoring in what WGS is and will be capable of as it proceeds with the AoA, but cautioned that it is still early days.

“Full consideration of all wideband capabilities will be considered as options to meet the requirements that will be addressed during the AoA. The AoA is still in the early planning phase,” he said.

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