Air Force Seeks Solution for Satellite Radio Costs, Delays

August 2012
By Clarence A. Robinson Jr., SIGNAL Magazine


Soldiers at a training facility receive instruction with the U.S. Army’s Secure Mobile Antijam Reliable Tactical Terminal (SMART-T). These soldiers learn to send and receive voice, data, video and text communications via Raytheon’s SMART-T secure mobile equipment without detection and interception by adversaries.

To revamp space-based communications, the service opens competition and spurs industry action.

One of the nation’s most critical multibillion-dollar next-generation satellite communications programs is being restructured. After shifting to a fixed-price contract, the U.S. Defense Department is inviting new industry competition for the Air Force’s advanced beyond-line-of-sight terminal program.

This strategic atmospheric link for a constellation of Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) System satellites is the Family of Advanced Beyond-Line-of-Sight Terminals, or FAB-T. Geosynchronous orbiting spacecraft provide antijam, low probability of intercept or detection communications to the satellite terminals, with vastly improved data rates. The FAB-T will handle some of the most sensitive communications, including those involving the nation’s nuclear weapons deterrent.

In late April, the Air Force issued a request for proposal to industry seeking an alternate source for development and possible production of the satellite terminals. In May, the service renegotiated its approximately $1.6 billion contract with Boeing to convert from a cost-plus to a firm-fixed-price agreement. Meanwhile, bids for the FAB-T proposal were due from industry in early June, with a contract award anticipated in September.

While Boeing continues as FAB-T program of record contractor, Raytheon is among communications companies competing as an alternate source. Raytheon already produces other AEHF terminals for Army, Navy and Air Force programs. These terminals exploit the constellation’s communications technology with high data rates.

AEHF satellites are replacing the aging Milstar system, greatly expanding the military’s communications satellite architecture. The second Lockheed Martin AEHF satellite, launched in May, is part of a planned four-spacecraft constellation operating from geosynchronous orbit. This cross-linked satellite constellation will provide continuous digital communications over an area from 65 degrees north to 65 degrees south latitude—global coverage. The terminals are designed to provide connectivity across air, land and naval mission areas. These missions include special operations, strategic nuclear weapons, theater missile defense and space operations and intelligence.

AEHF satellites provide numerous advances that extend beyond Milstar’s capabilities. Nevertheless, the downlink terminals also are designed to be compatible with Milstar while concurrently compatible with the new satellites, providing more than a hundred times the capacity of the 1990s Milstar constellation.

FAB-T requirements encompass a software-programmable terminal that is nuclear survivable. The terminal radios must transmit at 8-megabits-per-second (mbps) uplink to AEHF spacecraft and at 24-mbps downlink.

Boeing won an approximately $235 million contract in 2002 for FAB-T development, beating Raytheon and other companies in the competition. Meanwhile the cost has swollen to about $1.6 billion. This figure does not include production. During this same period, Raytheon developed and began production of a family of multiservice AEHF terminals.

The original FAB-T contract with Boeing called only for development with up to four increments, explains Col. James Hardy, USAF. He is chief of the space force enhancement division, directorate of Air Force space programs. Boeing’s long expertise with airborne platforms, such as the B-52 bomber, influenced its selection as the FAB-T contractor.

The various FAB-T increments now have vanished as part of Air Force restructuring with Boeing. Only one FAB-T now exists, which originally would have been increment one, Col. Hardy continues. Soon after beginning development of FAB-T, Boeing realized the difficulty involved in developing a terminal with 13 different configurations and a lengthy list of performance specifications—far more difficult than anticipated. “There also were government engineering change proposals pressed onto the FAB-T program because of complex AEHF waveforms and National Security Agency information assurance requirements,” the colonel reveals.

As changes continued to roll in, the program grew substantially in costs and schedule, Col. Hardy says. By 2006, the FAB-T program was restructured and turned into a Major Defense Acquisition Program (MDAP), with an increase in cost. A new program baseline also emerged in 2007.

“Boeing continued with hardware and software development and discovered a large degree of difficulty with software components based on the Extended Data Rate (XDR) that AEHF brings,” Col. Hardy maintains. “The FAB-T program had a lot of concurrency. “Along with government changes, Boeing encountered difficulty in integrating XDR software from Rockwell Collins into the radios, especially in the modem processor group. They really struggled, but as the Air Force applied pressure, the company responded by hiring additional skilled specialists and replacing others,” the colonel continues. “Boeing, which previously employed distributed integration and testing, also consolidated these FAB-T operations in its Huntington Beach, California, facility. Integration was a major developmental issue.”

Concurrently, the Air Force Electronic Systems Center, Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts, increased its own experienced cadre of experts to help oversee the FAB-T effort. FAB-T program execution at Hanscom is for the Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base, California.

Boeing officials decided to emphasize hardware leading toward low-rate initial production, while slowly continuing with XDR software development. “This approach helped to make the program more executable by not trying to accomplish everything at once, deferring software work until they got a handle on hardware first,” the colonel states.

Nevertheless, the radio also posed challenges with a one-size-fits-all concept. “This radio on the ground involved the same fundamental set of electronics as the radios in the B-52 or the B-2 bombers. Robust environmental requirements for bomber radios were extreme because of temperature swings with altitude, acoustic and mechanical vibrations,” Col. Hardy says. “Packaging the radios turned out to be extremely difficult. Boeing was forced to tackle some of the more complex challenges in radio hardware packaging for bombers, especially the B-52 and its antenna. While this was underway, costs increased again.”


Raytheon has provided next-generation Navy Multiband Terminals (NMTs) since it received the production contract award in 2010. The NMT is a family of ship-, submarine- and shore-based communications harnessing both AEHF and Milstar satellites on orbit. Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands also operate the Navy/Raytheon terminals with extended data rates.

By 2010, the Air Force took a very hard look at the FAB-T program, restructuring it to bring down costs. Boeing was put on notice that the company’s performance had to improve. A series of FAB-T reviews soon took place with Defense Department and Joint Staff officials. This led to a funding appropriation in fiscal year 2012 for an alternate source, the colonel asserts. However, this alternate-source concept is somewhat different. There will not be a second source building a copy of Boeing’s FAB-T radio. “This alternate source will provide a radio that fits in various command post [CP] locations but may look markedly different,” the colonel explains. “There will be 84 of these terminal radios, and they must meet all CP specifications. We looked at restructuring to bring in competition and also reduce overall risks.

“The near-term FAB-T focus will be on CP terminals. We decided to defer production and installation of the terminals in B-52s, B-2s and RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft until later. Remember, CP is a category, not a location,” Col. Hardy stresses.

The integration of networked satellite command and control systems with nuclear hardening is a difficult process, Boeing officials explain. “The program had to deal with a number of technical changes driven by modifications to the AEHF satellites. Additionally, developmental challenges associated with the completion of FAB-T terminals caused schedule erosion and cost growth. Boeing has implemented a number of changes to address all of these issues.”

The FAB-T program has been executed to its revised program baseline since April 2010. “We anticipate entering functional qualification testing and delivering engineering development models to the Air Force in 2013,” Boeing officials claim. “Our initiative to convert to a firm-fixed-price structure is indicative of our confidence to execute the remainder of the development contract. It will be incumbent on us to deliver a production cost that is in line with available customer resources,” they assert.

The FAB-T hardware development is complete. The software development integration and test is more than 95 percent complete. “We anticipate entering functional qualification testing and delivering engineering design tool models in 2013,” Boeing officials point out. “This includes providing additional software functions. Airborne testing involving an advanced Block 8 terminal and the on-orbit AEHF satellite is ongoing, and we continue to make measurable progress against the planned baseline for the program. Additionally, we are working closely with our Air Force customer to drive down program costs, both on the development and production phase, scheduled to begin in 2013.”

Raytheon, a potential Boeing competitor, won the Navy’s Multiband Terminal (NMT) competition in 2007, receiving several production orders valued at $145 million. An initial award for 22 AEHF terminals expanded in 2010 to more than 100 terminal systems and spares for use with ships, submarines and shore communications that support a net-centric architecture. Contract provisions also encompass foreign military sales to Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Earlier this year, the Air Force approved full-scale production for Raytheon’s Minuteman Minimum Essential Emergency Communications Network Program Upgrade, or MMPU. The production contract includes 67 MMPU terminals, including spares. This contract award follows successful operational testing with the first AEHF satellite on orbit.

The testing proves interoperability with the satellite’s XDR waveform, moving data five times faster than previous EHF systems. MMPU hardware and software incorporate within the product line the company’s XDR waveform, including new cryptographic algorithms that protect national command and control networks. This capability is considered a complex technological breakthrough in protected communications. The XDR and the cryptographic algorithms provide increases in bandwidth and speed and significantly improve security for voice, data and video, according to Raytheon officials.

Raytheon’s MMPU terminal, located in ballistic missile silos, joins the NMT on Trident ballistic missile submarines and the Army’s Secure Mobile Antijam Reliable Tactical Terminal (SMART-T), all developed and produced as an integrated product line. The various terminals are approximately 80 percent compatible in hardware and software, according to Raytheon officials. The company intends to use its product-line approach as an advantage in the FAB-T alternate source competition.

The SMART-T became the first operationally fielded terminal to function successfully with the on-orbit AEHF satellite at high data rates. SMART-T also demonstrates the compatibility to communicate at low and medium data rates to support earlier EHF satellite systems. Raytheon is delivering 364 SMART-T terminals to the Army.

“We have created an architecture that is common cross all three terminals—SMART-T, MMPU and NMT. This is a huge leap in technology beyond the SMART-T Pathfinder program,” one company official shares. “Raytheon understands that the effort for the FAB-T competition needs to be far more than a refresh of technology. We will keep the same architecture but use a design-to-cost approach with huge technology advances. This approach enables us to offer an AEHF terminal line with about 80 percent commonality in circuit card assemblies, changing the form factor to meet Air Force CP requirements.

“Raytheon also is upgrading its Navy terminal production line to handle a new enhanced polar orbiting satellite system. This same capability will therefore be available to the FAB-T product line.”

The Air Force is mandating delivery of the first FAB-T production unit in September 2015. The program plan calls for eventual delivery of 84 production terminals—41 terminals at fixed CP sites; 22 ground-transportable terminals; four terminals for E-4 CP aircraft; and 17 terminals for Navy E-6B airborne CP aircraft with links to ballistic missile submarines.

Getting an early start over the past six months, Raytheon already funded a small FAB-T alternate terminal team. A larger identified team is poised to hit the ground running, if the company wins the competition.


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