The U.S. Air Force is exploring new ways to provide the most sensitive satellite communications -- including presidential control over nuclear forces -- to users around the globe, in order to reduce costs and provide better service.
The service is studying a variety of options that would break from the decades-old standard of building five large, expensive satellites -- such as Milstar and the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) constellations -- for protected strategic and tactical communications.
"What we are trying to do is fundamentally change the way we are doing business," says Dave Madden, director of the Air Force's Milsatcom system program office. "If they want us to reduce the cost, we either have to take a lot of risk . . . or we have to figure out how to fundamentally do the job differently."
Risk in this area is generally not an option, as these satellite systems support the nuclear command-and-control mission as well as special operators globally.
For a variety of reasons, the AEHF constellation has cost far more than expected. Problems included unstable funding from the government, as well as overly optimistic technical expectations and schedule delays by prime contractor Lockheed Martin during development. The first satellite cost $1.7 billion in research and development funding; the second cost $2 billion and the third dropped to $830 million. But the fourth, being built now, is estimated to spike to $1.7 billion again owing to a break in production funding that created obsolescence and vendor management problems, according to Madden's office.
Seventeen contractors are now working on various elements of a future constellation of satellites, including waveforms, space and ground segments, mission planning, cryptographic components and terminal design.
After studying the principal cost drivers for the AEHF system, Madden says he plans to focus on the payload providers. This is prompting officials to explore turning the acquisition model inside out -- contracting with the payload provider as the prime and simply buying a standard bus direct from a manufacturer for integration. "What we are finding is that . . . 99 percent of the time, the schedule delay and the risk and critical path are always on the payload," he says. "So, let's focus on the payload provider."
The Air Force used this procurement model when it purchased a single Operationally Responsive Space (ORS)-1 satellite from a Goodrich/Alliant Techsystems team, and some Air Force officials say the results were encouraging enough to consider applying it to other programs.
Madden says he is not worried about spacecraft bus providers lowering their standards with this model. "Generally, they follow our military standards now," he says. By purchasing existing buses, the Air Force could reduce its cost for software. Madden says that with each new system, often an entirely new software suite must be designed, built and tested, adding to the cost of a constellation.
Under this model, mainstay primes such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin would take a back seat to companies such as Raytheon, Northrop Grumman or ITT. Northrop Grumman is the payload provider for AEHF and is building the Enhanced Polar System hosted payload that will extend the reach of high-data-rate protected communications to the extreme northern latitudes.
Madden acknowledges that the government assumes more of the management risk in buying a bus direct from a manufacturer and providing it to a payload provider for integration. For the last 15 years, the government has turned over system-wide management oversight to the bus manufacturer under the failed Total System Performance Responsibility model.
However, Madden is not limiting his review to the space segment. He says the study contracts are designed to explore various pieces of the larger architecture. In one case, he says the government is running multiple missions through the highest cryptographic standard whether they are for nuclear forces or a single tactical operator. "Tactical communications don't need to be [electro-magnetic pulse] protected," he says.
This realization is driving officials to consider a "disaggregated" architecture that would keep the most stringent protected communications requirements on a host satellite but distribute ancillary functions -- such as those for tactical users -- to smaller, less robust spacecraft. Those satellites would likely cost less to develop and produce and, possibly, require less expensive launch vehicles. "This is the time to look hard at disaggregation," Madden says. "That might be the answer, [or] the benefit of separating may cost us more than we can afford."
Savings could also be garnered in crafting the mission planning tool of the future. Lessons from commercial providers could help reduce the complexity and price of systems. Madden says that with each new constellation comes a new mission planning suite, adding costs. A more universal approach to mission planning that functions on known standards could be a cost-savings opportunity.
Improving standards for terminal development could also reduce the system's price, Madden says. Terminals often cost "tens of billions of dollars" to allow for the full capabilities of a satellite constellation to be distributed globally. By not adhering to rigorous standards, the Pentagon opens itself up to more complex systems to link terminals into the system, he says.
The studies will be complete in 2013 in order to support a formal analysis of alternatives in 2014. Madden says that whatever path is selected from this process will likely see its first major funding in the 2015 budget.
Meanwhile, Madden is negotiating the next contract with Lockheed Martin for Satellites 5 and 6 under the first-ever "block buy" for the system. The deal will be structured as a fixed-price, incentive fee contract that includes performance milestones and is intended to reduce the spacecrafts' prices by 20-40%, he says. He hopes to have the contract finalized by the end of January.
AEHF-4 is tentatively planned for launch in 2017, with -5 in 2018 and -6 in 2019.
- This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
- Amy Butler