16 September 2015
by John Kerrin

New communications contract attracting bidders

Australian troops will get better real-time battlefield communications information through enhanced access to a high-tech US military satellite system.

The Australian Department of Defence has released a tender for the construction of an east coast satellite ground station to support the Wideband Global Combat Satellite System.
It is to be built at Kapooka, near Wagga Wagga, in NSW.
The WGS, as it is known, is a constellation of the most advanced US military communications satellites in fixed orbit over sections of the world.

Six of the planned 10 WGS satellites are in orbit. The first was launched in 2007 and is stationed over the Pacific Ocean, a second is over the Middle East, a third over Europe and Africa, a fourth over the Indian Ocean and a fifth over the Americas.

Australia paid $927 million to sign up to the system in 2007 and agreed to pay for a sixth WGS satellite. The satellite was launched in August 2013, with Australia having access to the system until 2029.

The east coast ground station project is believed to be worth up to $300 million.

More immediate access
The facility offers Australia more immediate access to the satellite system and will enable Australian and US forces to respond more quickly to a military crisis or terrorist attack in the region.

It is designed to improve access to the satellites and complement the first ground station built in Western Australia, near Geraldton, although that project, involving BAE Systems, was placed on the government's projects of concern list earlier in 2015.

When the WGS program was announced by the Pentagon it was described as providing a "quantum leap" in the communications bandwidth for US and Australian war fighters.

The WGS "provides deployed forces unprecedented access to bandwidth-intensive applications such as video streaming, teleconferencing, real-time data transmission and high-resolution imaging," the Pentagon said.

The new wideband capability also offered support for the new generation of unmanned aeriel vehicles, such as Global Hawks and MQ-9 Reapers.

A consortium involving Northrop Grumman, ViaSat and telecommunications provider Optus is the first to go public with a bid for the east coast facility.

But up to four consortia are expected to bid for the project, with Defence to release a shortlist as early as October.

Negotiations are expected to take up to two years before a contract is finalised about 2017.

Same management system
Northrop Grumman, which is the prime contractor, is offering the same network management system that has been integrated into the WGS system successfully in the US.

ViaSat will offer the systems' dual band satellite terminals and comes to the task having delivered 10 complete ground stations for Australia's National Broadband Network.

Northrop Grumman Australia chief executive Ian Irving said his firm's offering "will give Australia the ability to use the system at the same standard as the US military".

Northrop Grumman had worked closely "with the WGS program in the United States" and he looked "forward to working with the ADF to support and further develop the technology in Australia", he said.

ViaSat Australia general manager government and defence Colin Cooper said in teaming with Northrop and Optus the Commonwealth was being offered a low-risk solution.

"Since 2012 ViaSat has delivered 10 ground satellite terminals for the National Broadband Network … it is a very similar system to that required by the Australian Defence Force," Mr Cooper said.

"The need for a ground satellite station in the east is vital to the ADF because it will enable the ADF to see the full range of satellites and fully support operations wherever Australian troops are deployed."
Optus Satellite vice-president Paul Sheridan said the firm had been "successfully operating satellites for three decades".

He said Optus had a long-term relationship with the Defence Force through the provision of early satellite services.