December 31, 2012
Credit: Credit: Lockheed Martin
Amy Butler Washington
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.