Australia’s WGS communications—what went wrong?
22 Sep 2015|


When I was surveying the communications capability of the ADF back in 2010, I made the following observation:

‘Australian users now have access to the US-built Wideband Global Satellite (WGS) system. This ‘off-the-shelf’ purchase provides a good capability for the ADF and greatly facilitates connectivity with US forces.’

I assumed that we’d simply mirror the American implementation of the system—clearly that was wrong. It’s true that the ADF uses the WGS system, but it’s via a series of workarounds, while the ‘off-the-shelf’ WGS project is now on the ‘Projects of Concern’ list. This post is my attempt to explain how that happened—and how we lost five years of capability and return on investment in the process.

The WGS is a high bandwidth satellite communications system designed for military platforms and land forces. It’s well-established and widely used by American forces, including US Army ground mobile terminals, USN ships and submarines and national command authorities for nuclear forces. It has even found its way into military tactical vehicles as ‘SATCOM on the move’, enabling functions such as blue force tracking (the real time sharing of the location of friendly forces).

In 2007 Australia signed an agreement with the US to gain access to WGS. The quid pro quo was that Australia would fund the sixth satellite in the constellation, which was duly launched in 2013. The seventh, of an eventual 10, was launched a couple of months ago. This sensible arrangement would allow the ADF to access global wideband coverage for a fraction of the cost of establishing its own system and to move away from dependence on commercial providers. In return, the US could partially defray the cost of the constellation.

In 2009 the government approved project JP2008 Phase 3F to establish a ground station at Geraldton in Western Australia and to upgrade the facility near Canberra. The work was expected to be completed by 2013 and cost $94 million. The schedule seemed reasonable given that WGS was already in service with the US, albeit as a work in progress as older ground stations were ‘grandfathered’ into the architecture with a certified end-to-end system still to be achieved. The reality is different, with Australia’s project now planned to deliver five years late, meaning that our investment (almost $1 billion) will be amortised over a much shorter time than expected. Satellites don’t last forever; sometime next decade a replacement for the WGS constellation—including our own WGS6—will be required, so we’ve already foregone a fair fraction of the usable life of the system.

So how did this happen? We can get a few hints from the reporting of the Projects of Concern listing. As the procurement authority, the then-Defence Materiel Organisation was responsible for managing the contract with BAE Systems. DMO suggests that the problem was squarely the contractor’s responsibility, saying that BAE ‘did not follow its system engineering process [and] sourced components and constructed SGS-W with significant technical non–conformance issues. These issues have been compounded by the Contractor’s lack of expertise with WGS Ground Stations’.

While BAE has clearly underperformed, this project shows that ultimately the risk resides with the Commonwealth as sole customer. No doubt DMO has tried to manage performance, perhaps by refusing to sign off project milestones and even withholding payments (which might explain the reporting of a ‘contractual dispute’ between the parties). But at every point, DMO has to decide whether to push on for eventual delivery of a required capability, or to pull the plug and start again with all the delays that entails.

For its part, BAE said that ‘this is the first time any organization has implemented US WGS requirements on such a large scale. This caused delivery challenges during the systems engineering process that precedes formal testing’. That’s not especially convincing—it’s true that it was the first time that a contractor outside the US system had implemented WGS in this way, but it’s a system for which the technical specifications and compliance criteria are well defined, and for which several successful installations exist around the world.

In the absence of a detailed exposition (I wonder if the ANAO has some spare time?) we’re left to guess, but maybe the proffered BAE solution was the lower cost option (American contractors certainly don’t come cheap), the assessed technical risk erred badly on the side of optimism, or both. Ultimately, there’s enough blame to go around for all of the parties involved, but that doesn’t help the Australian taxpayer to get value for their money, even though some mitigation strategies have lessened the impact on the ADF. I’ve written about many projects with cost and schedule problems, but this one is particularly exasperating since it could have—and perhaps should have—been relatively easy.