By B.C. Kessner

The first two Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) satellites Boeing [BA] built for the Air Force are performing well, the third is set to launch in November, and three Block II satellites currently in production are being modified to support unmanned aircraft systems in addition to tactical warfighters, the company said last week.

“The Block II satellites will have slight modifications for the airborne ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) community to allow them to put full datalinks through at 274Mbps of data,” Bill Reiner, assistant director for satellite communications and cyber security in Boeing government operations office, told reporters during a press briefing at the annual Air Force conference at National Harbor.

“This will be a big improvement for the Global Hawk community, and we know that the Predators are going to start using it eventually, so we’ll see in the future a dramatic increase in ISR traffic through these satellites,” he added.

Reiner said the first two WGS satellites are up “operating fantastically” and it appears they are going to have about 19 years of mission life. Each is working at about 25 percent greater power than original designs specified.

WGS-1 is operational over the Pacific region and has already picked up Defense Satellite Communication System networks. WGS-2 is operational over the Middle East and was turned over to the government about a month and a half ago. It is in orbit over Indian Ocean and networks are starting to be cut over now, primarily starting with those using X-band, with Ka-band networks starting to merge as new units arrive into theater, Reiner said.

WGS-3 is still on track for launch into orbit over the Eastern Atlantic in November.

Formerly known as the Wideband Gapfiller System envisioned in the late 1990s, WGS as emerging today brings a host of unique capabilities, and, according to Boeing, provides cost savings and critical operational advantages compared to commercial SATCOM.

“For the first time, this has brought two-way Ka-band…which brings a dramatic amount of bandwidth for the warfighter, and mobility because of the small antennas that you can use in that frequency band,” Reiner said.

WGS offers the opportunity to do point-to-point broadcast or one-to-many multicast. It also allows users to come up in any beam, for example, if one user had an X-band terminal, and come down in any beam, if another user had a Ka-band terminal. “For the first time you have the ability for mixed networks and this is the first satellite that you can come up and switch beams like that…it’s switched with [a Boeing-devised] channelizer and the flexibility it offers the warfighter is amazing,” Reiner added.

After the last Block I bird, WGS-3 goes into orbit in November, there will be full coverage around the world except for a portion in the center of the United States, Reiner said. That is OK, he added, because DoD and other government agencies will still be able to train near and off the coasts and continue to train as they will fight once the 3rd satellite gets on orbit.

The satellites have unique military features that allow users to shape beams if a jammer comes up in some area. They also allow users to move beams to provide specific coverage of a battlegroup, for example. “WGS is very easily reconfigurable with the ground software that the Army runs,” Reiner said.

The Block II satellites, WGS-4 through WGS-6, are all in various phases of integration and testing in production. Launches are scheduled for second quarter 2011, fourth quarter 2011, and fourth quarter12.

These are the versions that have a RF bypass feature to better support UAS operations. Modifications are designed to allow each satellite to support two Global Hawks on their ISR missions initially.

Boeing is working with the Air Force to evaluate evolutionary upgrades for future WGS procurement plans, Reiner said. The company has been involved with studies about evolving technologies from the scrapped Transformational Satellite System (TSAT) program into future widebands. “The government has spent about $2 billion on TSAT…those technologies are ready to start being integrated into satellites,” he said.

The trick now, he added, was to find smart ways to bring those technologies forward for the warfighter. Incorporating TSAT technologies beyond WGS-6 and Block II is probably a better way to limit risk and changes that could slow production if added now to the Block II satellites, Reiner said.

On-the-move communications technology is a good example of something likely to be incorporated into future satellites. The Army and Marine Corps want small terminal to satellite communications capabilities.

Reiner said the Army plans to use first three WGS satellites to test on-the-move communications at a limited rate of about 256Kbps to exercise the concept. The goal is to get up to about 2Mbps using a small terminal, something Reiner said would require modifications.

“The satellite has a lot of margin in terms of weight and power and has the ability to grow,” he said. “It also provides more protection against jamming, which is a very good thing in this current environment.”