Raytheon won the contract to equip US Air Force aircraft such as the E-4 with its Family of Advanced Beyond Line-of-Sight Terminals system for secure communications. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — Raytheon is on track to finish qualification testing on its Family of Advanced Beyond Line of Sight Terminals (FAB-T) by year’s end, a company official said.
“It’s going well so far, no issues," said Scott Whatmough, vice president and general manager for Integrated Communication Systems at Raytheon Network Centric Systems. "As we expected, we just have such a mature workforce here, and after 30 years of doing this you build up a really robust workforce.”
In June, the Massachusetts-based company won a $298 million contract to produce 84 of the terminals, which are meant to give U.S. leaders secure communications — even in a nuclear war — via the U.S. Air Force’s AEHF satellites. The terminals will outfit the Air Force’s E-4 and E-6 fleets as well as fixed and movable ground systems.
Keeping the program on track is no small task, given FAB-T’s history.
Raytheon expected to win the FAB-T program back in 2002, but instead the service awarded it to Boeing. It was seen as a major swing-and-miss for Raytheon and a get for Boeing, which at the time was focused on expanding its “net-centric” operations.
In the aftermath of that loss, Whatmough said, his team built similar systems for the Navy and Army. Meanwhile, Boeing proved unable to develop FAB-T, and when the Air Force reopened the program to competition in 2012, Raytheon won.
Analysts had expected Raytheon to win – after all, the service was clearly displeased with Boeing’s efforts – but the FAB-T program still represents a new “crown jewel” for the company, Whatmough said.
“It wasn’t ‘Raytheon pulled off a miracle’,” Whatmough said. “We just did what we’ve done well for the last 30 years and it worked out pretty well for us.”
The systems will be built at the company’s facilities in Largo, Florida, outside Tampa.
Originally, Raytheon’s FAB-T contract included airborne terminals for the B-2, B-52 and RC-135. The Air Force removed those in a move widely attributed to budget concerns in a time of sequestration.
“It’s down to budgeting,” Whatmough said. “Because of all the uncertainties over the prior FAB-T program, I think the Air Force chose to attack their immediate need, which is the command post.”
Whatmough said that he expects the service to offer another contract at some point to tackle the airborne component.
He explained why the airborne terminals, particularly the systems for the stealthy B-2 bomber, are so complicated.
“It’s an interesting aircraft,” he said of the B-2. “It was a classified program when it was being developed and they came up with a very unique mechanical packaging concept for all of their electronics. Turns out no other aircraft ever adopted it, so it has a unique mechanical packaging.”
In addition, the antennas needed for the B-2 are different from those of the B-52 and RC-135.
Raytheon may be on track, but that doesn’t mean the program is totally secure from budgetary bumps.
A budget reprogramming request submitted by the Pentagon seeks to shift $4 million from the FAB-T program to other priorities. The Pentagon said those funds are available due to “a schedule slip in the downselect” of the program.
Budget documents obtained by Defense News showed that the four major congressional defense committees have either approved or deferred judgment on that reprograming effort.
That is unlikely to have any long-term impact on the FAB-T program, but given that budgets are expected to shrink as sequestration returns for the FY 2016 budget, very few programs can be called truly safe. The service could look to slip smaller-priority programs a few years in order to save funds for its big three recapitalization programs, the F-35 joint strike fighter, KC-46 tanker and long-range strike bomber.