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Feature Story

Three Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) Block I satellites

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This photo shows all three Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) Block I satellites together in various stages of production in 2006 in the Boeing Satellite Development Center in El Segundo, Calif. Today, all three satellites are operational and providing unmatched broadband communications services to U.S. warfighters and allies in all current theaters of operation around the world.

Lifeline for the troops

Boeing technicians examine the third Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) military communications satellite

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Boeing technicians examine the third Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) military communications satellite. Launch of the satellite in December completed the initial constellation of three WGS satellites, which provide high-speed communications to U.S. forces and allies around the world.

Like the civilian world, the U.S. military has a large and growing need for high-speed or “broadband” data services – everything from streaming video to transmission of e-mail messages. But troops deployed in the Afghan mountains or on a ship in the Persian Gulf cannot simply call Time Warner Cable, Verizon or DirecTV for services.

In layman’s terms, the American armed forces are transitioning from “dial-up” data rates to full broadband services, including high-definition video, as the new, Boeing-built Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) satellites have come on line. The dramatic increases in data rates are providing tremendous operational advantages for warfighters.

The first two WGS satellites, WGS-1 and WGS-2, became operational in 2008 and 2009, respectively. The WGS program just achieved another major milestone with the third satellite, WGS-3, entering service in June. With three satellites now operational, WGS services are available across most of the globe, including every theater of operation where U.S. troops are deployed.

WGS is especially useful in remote areas where commercial service is not available, such as mountains and oceans. The satellites have “reflector dishes” and phased array antennas that can be directed or steered in real time to locations where SATCOM coverage is needed.

“Wherever our troops go, they can now depend on this vital capability,” said Air Force Col. Don Robbins, Wideband SATCOM Group commander. “When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, that’s a pretty critical lifeline to have.”

The third WGS satellite sits atop a Delta IV launch vehicle

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The third WGS satellite sits atop a Delta IV launch vehicle in preparation for a December 2009 liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

Even in areas where commercial service is available, WGS is the preferred choice for the U.S. Department of Defense. WGS can provide service to new users within hours, whereas obtaining new commercial SATCOM service typically takes days. Also, unlike commercial service, WGS satellites can be repositioned in orbit to adapt to changing mission requirements. Yet another unique feature of WGS is “crossbanding,” which connects users that are operating within different frequency bands. Despite all of its military features, WGS is substantially more cost-effective than leased commercial SATCOM bandwidth – an important attribute amid tight Defense Department budgets.

Operation of WGS is a shared responsibility, with the Air Force controlling the satellite platforms from Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the Army controlling the communications payloads and warfighter transmissions from Wideband SATCOM Operations Centers around the world.

“WGS increases situational awareness,” said Peter Stauffer, SATCOM division chief for U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. “As a result, our warfighters have the information they need to make quicker decisions, and that greatly improves their chance of success on the battlefield.”

WGS’s increased power also allows mobile forces to use more compact equipment to connect with the satellites. For example, some communications links that previously could only be supported through large, truck-mounted antennas can now be accomplished with terminals that can be transported in suitcases and assembled quickly in the field by soldiers, according to Stauffer. The high-speed broadband connection provided by WGS allows ground troops and other forces to share full-motion video and sensor data gathered from the military’s growing inventory of unmanned surveillance aircraft. It also enables military leaders stationed around the world to meet via video teleconferences.

Artist rendering of a WGS satellite

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WGS satellites are the highest-capacity communications satellites in the U.S. Defense Department’s inventory.

Stauffer, who has worked to bring WGS to fruition since its capability was conceived in the late 1990s, is gratified to see WGS become a reality.

“It’s like watching your kids grow up,” Stauffer said proudly.

Three more WGS satellites, known as Block II, are in production and are slated for launch starting in 2012. The sixth satellite has been funded by the Australian Defence Force, through a special partnership between the U.S. and Australian governments -- a sign of strong international interest in militarized, high-speed SATCOM services.

The Block II satellites offer a significant enhancement, which is the ability to support the ultra-high data rates required for the U.S. Air Force’s Global Hawk unmanned aircraft and the U.S. Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) unmanned aircraft,” said Mark Spiwak, Boeing WGS program director. "These newest WGS spacecraft will make this indispensable constellation an even more useful asset for warfighters."