WASHINGTON — The US Air Force is considering handing day-to-day operations of its Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) constellation to a commercial partner by 2016, a top service official said Wednesday.

Dave Madden, director of the Military Satellite Communications Systems Directorate at Space and Missile Systems Center, told a breakfast organized by the Air Force Association that he's hopeful that "2016 is going to be the year we're finally able to take command and control of WGS and hand it over to the commercial sector."

The reason for that move would be to free up Air Force service members from the day-to-day tracking and maintenance of a satellite network, which Madden said could be handled with less manpower by a private company.

"That's traditionally a job the service providers do, and we use a squadron to do it. In most cases, the commercial guys are doing it with three to four people," Madden explained. "For the money we're paying to sustain the WGS constellation, we can give it to a service provider to fly it, and sustain it, and then we can free up that squadron [for other missions] and get us out of the basic service provider capability."

Those airmen could then focus more on the battle management aspect of WGS, or be put toward supporting other space programs.

The WGS primarily provides bandwidth for command and control, ISR and battle management needs. It is also a unique set up for the Air Force, as Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and New Zealand all joined together to help fund one of the satellites. Even more notable, Australia fully funded the sixth satellite in the constellation.

Heidi Grant, deputy undersecretary for International Affairs, told Defense News that she would like to see more space systems follow the WGS buy-in model.

"With budget constraints around the world, we need new thinking on how we do this sharing," she said in a February interview. "With the Wideband Global Satellite system, two of the nine satellites were bought by partners. They have access to the larger constellation, we get more bandwidth, and they have picked up the cost for that."

"The more we can partner-integrate with our coalition, the more accountable we come together, the more trusting we are together," she added. "So there is a lot of good from the security standpoint."

Madden indicated that if the WGS switch can be done successfully, it paves the way for similar moves for other Air Force systems in the future. He highlighted GPS as one area that could see a similar shift.

"Why can't command and control of the GPS be a service? Let the blue-suiters work on the nav piece, the mission planning piece, and hand the day-to-day operations over," Madden said. "It's much more efficient and effective than training crews for a couple years, they just become proficient, and then [they leave]."

Madden added that he expects to open competition on the GPS-3 system with satellite No. 11, and is currently having discussions about how to ensure an open competition.

Twitter: @AaronMehta

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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