LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
The U.S. has an established process for the sale of military equipment and technology to foreign nations. Commonly sold items include aircraft, ammunition, and tanks; prices on these items range from the thousands to the billions depending on the type and quantities acquired. But what does the U.S. do when an international entity requests to buy one of its largest and most expensive assets? Communications satellites don’t run cheap, especially the type that the U.S. needs, as they must provide protected, anti-jam capabilities to our warfighters. The partnerships on the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) and Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite programs represent a significant achievement in U.S. international relations because they have allowed us to share communications resources with some of our closest allies in return for help paying for the design, production, and sustainment of the multi-billion dollar systems. Both programs have unique arrangements that allow the U.S. to operate cooperatively with our allies while keeping our interests safe.
The U.S. and Australia came to an unprecedented agreement for MILSATCOM in 2007, when Australia decided to join the WGS program providing the funds to expand the constellation to six satellites in return for a share of WGS bandwidth that they use today. Since then, the U.S. has also formed a multilateral partnership with Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and New Zealand, expanding the WGS constellation with the ninth WGS satellite. Similar to the agreement with Australia, the multilateral partners also share a portion of WGS resources. There are seven WGS satellites in orbit, and WGS 8, 9 and 10 are planned to launch in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Tactical users from all nations benefit from the communications capabilities enabled by these agreements, though the missions of each nation vary.
While WGS represents the tactical side of MILSATCOM, the strategic AEHF program provides a very different capability. It does support the tactical user, but its primary mission is to give protected, anti-jam, nuclear-hardened communications capability to the President of the United States. It might seem impossible to share such a system with any other nation because of its criticality, but the AEHF program developed a way to give communications resources to other countries, allowing the U.S. to form three international partnerships beginning in 1999 with Canada. The U.S. then partnered with the Netherlands on AEHF in 2002 and the United Kingdom in 2003. In the early years these partnerships focused on the development, production, documentation, and initial fielding of the AEHF satellites. Today, AEHF has three satellites in-orbit and plans to launch three more; after the launch of the first three vehicles, International Partners helped test the AEHF crosslinks before the U.S., providing invaluable test data that would help prove the system’s capability. While the program reached Initial Operational Capability in 2015, users still do not fully utilize its entire bandwidth. Because AEHF provides both a tactical and strategic capability, the challenge for these partnerships is to provide protected bandwidth to our partners while ensuring strategic command and control capability is protected at all times. Despite this challenge, the added capability of communications interoperability with our strategic allies makes the U.S. more agile and gives us greater reach while strengthening ties politically with all three countries.
Looking ahead, international partnerships in MILSATCOM will become even more critical, as working together with other countries to develop our future communications satellites will allow us to be more interoperable, promote resiliency, and share the costs and benefits of the most advanced technology available. Challenges include working together to incorporate international requirements as future programs are in their infant acquisition stages, a job that the International Division at MILSATCOM takes very seriously. Follow-on systems for AEHF and WGS are just two examples; collaboration in emerging Protected Tactical Communications capabilities and communications in the Polar Regions as well as opportunities for leveraging commercial bandwidth make up further possibilities for cooperation.