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USAF Eyes Savings in Next Batch of AEHF Sats

Apr. 29, 2012 - 05:41PM   |  
The U.S. Air Force's 45th Space Wing successfully launched the first Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite onboard an Atlas V launch vehicle in August 2010.
The U.S. Air Force's 45th Space Wing successfully launched the first Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite onboard an Atlas V launch vehicle in August 2010. ()
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The U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin have begun negotiations for a potential $3 billion purchase of two high-tech communications satellites.

Air Force officials want to acquire the two Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites below the $3.1 billion limit Congress set in the 2012 Defense Authorization Act, according to service officials.

“We hope to come down from that when we are done negotiating with Lockheed,” Col. James Hardy, chief of the Space Force Enhancement Division in the service’s acquisition directorate, said in an April 16 interview.

The program office at Los Angeles Air Force Base has worked with Lockheed to come up with some “pretty good projected savings” on the satellites, which are the fifth and sixth of the program, Hardy said.

The negotiations are expected to conclude this summer; the Air Force plans to award a contract by Sept. 30. Congress has approved the block buy of AEHF satellites five and six, which will be paid for over several years.

The Pentagon is studying its future satellite communications requirements, to include whether it should have more AEHF satellites beyond the six already planned.

The AEHF system provides secure communication at data speeds 10 times faster than the existing Milstar constellation. The system, which Air Force officials said cannot be jammed by an adversary, could allow senior government officials, including the president, to communicate during a nuclear war.

Milstar satellites transfer data at a rate of 5 megabits per second, while AEHF moves data at 60 megabits per second, said John Lee, the Air Force’s AEHF program lead. More ground-based users, including aircraft and ships, will be able to connect simultaneously to the AEHF constellation.

“We’re able to get a lot more information and data on it,” Lee said.

AEHF includes the Extended Data Rate Waveform, which allows data to be moved quicker. In several months, when the second satellite is in orbit, the biggest test will be exchanging data with the other AEHF satellite, as well as communicating with the Milstar constellation, according to Col. Michael Lakos, chief of the Global Mission Support Division at Air Force Space Command.

The first two satellites are expected to reach initial operational capability in 2014, Lakos said. The satellites also could be used tactically, such as for operations in Afghanistan in which a soldier needs to communicate without the risk of the signal or location being intercepted.

“It’s really unique,” Hardy said. “It’s a very special program.”

Britain, Canada and the Netherlands are AEHF partners. AEHF also is backward-compatible with Milstar.

So far, one AEHF satellite is on orbit. But it took longer than planned to reach its desired altitude due to a problem with a booster, which forced the Air Force to use smaller thrusters to place it in its proper orbit.

The first two satellites, built using research-and-development funds, cost about $2 billion each. The third, which is being stored for a 2013 launch, cost about $830 million.

A break in production boosted the price of the fourth satellite — which is being built — to $1.7 billion.

The Air Force is planning to launch the second satellite on May 3 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Air Force officials hope to use savings achieved during negotiations for satellites five and six for other satellite programs.

“Based on what we’ve budgeted for and what we try to recoup for savings by buying two together, hopefully we can take some of those savings and then reinvest those here into the MILSATCOM portfolio for the future or some other aspect within the space portfolio,” Lakos said.

Lockheed has “a number of affordability initiatives in place to reduce the cost of follow-on AEHF satellites,” Stephen Tatum, a company spokesman, said in an email.

“Some cost reduction measures include reducing staffing levels to efficiently transition from development to production, studying common parts buys between similar space programs to achieve economic order quantities, and strengthening management processes with lower-tier vendors, including mandatory parts screening and quality audits,” he said.

“We are also incorporating the lowest-cost, lowest-risk means to meet growing demand for protected SATCOM by leveraging technology insertion, at marginal costs,” for the fifth and sixth AEHF satellites, Tatum said.

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