SAN DIEGO — The transformational satellite program — as its name suggests — is designed to revolutionize military communications by supplying vast amounts of bandwidth to troops on the ground.
But that vision is now in jeopardy as the Defense Department reviews the program.
But T-Sat, as it is better known, isn’t dead, one official said at the Milcom conference here.
“The capability that’s crucial to the war fighter that T-Sat will provide, I believe, will be delivered,” said Vice Adm. Nancy Brown, director of command, control, communications and computers at the joints chiefs of staff.
The program ultimately will survive, Brown and other officials said, because the military has an insatiable demand for bandwidth that is projected to grow exponentially with the addition of more sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles and the services’ desire to operate in integrated networks.
T-Sat, however, won’t exactly be what was first envisioned, Brown noted.
The joint chiefs of staff are studying the problem, she said.
“Based on that, we will put a new program in place to deliver that capability,” she said.
The first launch has now been pushed back to the 2018 or 2019 timeframe, she said. That’s two years later than what the Air Force proposed one year ago.
“While the original program of record has been scoped down a little bit, the crucial capabilities that were in there have survived,” she added.
There might be a “qualifier” in front of the program’s name or behind it, she said.
Some experts in the industry are already referring to the new iteration as “T-Sat Lite.”
T-Sat was planned as the last in a series of new military communications satellites that promises to deliver more broadband over what is currently available.
The first of the wideband global communications satellites, formerly known as the wideband gapfiller, was launched in 2007 and will replace the 1980s defense satellite communications systems III. There are five spacecraft under contract.
The launch of the first of the Advanced EHF satellites, slated for early this year, will begin to replace the Milstar constellation.
T-Sat was to use powerful Ku-band transponders and laser-based communications that are virtually impossible to jam to bring the global information grid down to tactical levels. The original system was to employ up to six satellites.
The Air Force and its contractors have been developing key technologies for the past five years.
T-Sat would dramatically increase the amount of bandwidth available and would go far beyond the WGS and AEHF satellites.
It was also going to be one of the costliest and most technically complex military systems ever built, the Government Accountability Office noted in a 2007 report.
Lockheed Martin and Boeing are the two contractors vying for the T-Sat program. An award was first expected in December 2007, then that slipped to September 2008. In October, word came that the joints chiefs of staff were taking a second look at the requirements, and that an award would not be forthcoming — at least not during the Bush administration.
Richard Skinner, vice president of strategic planning for Lockheed Martin’s global communications systems division, said the bottom line is that the Defense Department wants T-Sat to be “less expensive.”
“They’re taking out some capabilities that they would like to have in the long run … They will defer some of those capabilities, we think,” Skinner said. But that’s all speculation, he noted. Lockheed Martin has not received any formal notifications on changes to T-Sat yet.
“We’re still competing on the original program. And we’re still working on risk reduction and system definition on the overall architecture,” he noted.
The satellite-to-satellite laser-based communications system may end up on the chopping block. That was primarily envisioned to work with another troubled program, space-based radar. Since its future is in doubt, the laser system is too, he said.
While a simpler T-Sat would ideally mean that it could be delivered quicker, the slow pace of funding could be a factor.
Skinner didn’t believe a contract would be awarded earlier than September of this year. That alone would account for the 2019 launch slip Brown alluded to, he said.
Stan Ruben, Boeing manager of new business technology and a member of the company’s T-Sat team, said, “We’re still waiting for official word from the Air Force as to how they think they’re going to proceed ... I’m not quite sure they know, either.”
First Lt. Andrew S. Fisher, chief of requirements branch for the Air Force T-Sat program office, said Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, who is vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, would be briefed on the status of the program in early December. He will be told, “Here’s this capability, X much dollars and here’s how it is going to affect your mission,” Fisher said.
Funding is the other factor.
“We just have to wait until the money is at the same place as the requirements,” Fisher added.
Brig. Gen. Lawrence Wells, Air Force director of war fighter systems integration and deployment, said there shouldn’t be any doubt that the military is going to need significantly more bandwidth.
During the next five years, 40 percent of the Air Force’s new aircraft will be unmanned. The number of UAV pilots will swell from 300 today to about 1,100 in 2012. These operators will require satellite communications.
“That’s all bandwidth because the way the Air Force flies is by reach back… bandwidth is going to be an issue in the future,” Wells said.
The Army’s Future Combat Systems, expected to be a big customer of on-the-move satellite communications, will also require these same capabilities, he added.
Brown said, “I really do believe that the department appreciates the requirement for T-Sat, the crucial capability it delivers, and that we will see T-Sat sometime in the future.” —