Out-of-Synch Satellite and Terminal Programs Cost Pentagon Millions
The first Advanced-Extremely High Frequency communications satellite was launched Aug. 14, and because of a problem firing its motor in the boost phase, is making a slower than expected climb to a spot some 25,000 miles above Earth.
But its tardy arrival on orbit is not the source of the waste. It’s the tardy arrival of the terminals that will connect the satellite to war fighters on the ground or in the air who want to make use of its secure communications.
It is an example of a longtime problem in the U.S. military: a lack of coordination between those who build and launch satellites, and those who develop the devices that connect the billion-dollar spacecraft with soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.
The costs to war fighters who don’t have tools they need are incalculable, said one officer who represented the “customer” side during a panel discussion at the Milcom conference here.
“I love that cooking. I need more of it and I need it sooner. And the kitchen is closed down. I can’t understand, from a war fighter perspective, why we’re putting capability on orbit, but I can’t exploit it,” said Air Force Col. David Uhrich, director of command, control, communications and computer systems and chief information officer at Joint Forces Command.
The Government Accountability Office’s Cristina T. Chaplain, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces, said of the five space systems in development requiring user terminals, none were aligned with the launch of the satellites.
Program managers who build satellites and those who field terminals are operating on different timelines, with different budgets and they face different technical challenges, experts at the panel said.
And they’re protecting their “rice bowls” and turf, said an executive who once served in the military on a terminal program.
“The dollar value of the satellite is so huge that you put all your attention there,” said the executive, who asked not to be named. As deadlines loom, terminal and satellite program managers engage in what is known as “launch chicken.” No one wants to be the first to admit that his program will be delayed.
“I’m not going to announce my slip because you’re going to announce your slip first,” the executive said. It becomes political, the executive added.
Col. Charles Cynamon, commander of the MILSATCOM advanced concepts group at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, said: “Our challenge is synchronizing in the face of fielding delays, both on the space segment and the ground segment.”
The lack of coordination also reduces the time the satellites are operationally effective, he added. The spacecraft only have a set number of years in orbit before they begin to degrade. A two-year gap between when the satellite is launched and when the terminals come online means two years where the satellite is not being used to its full potential.
Meanwhile, no one seems to be in charge of synchronizing the terminals and spacecraft.
The panel — composed of representatives from the Space and Missile Systems Center, the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Army, the joint terminal engineering office and Joint Forces Command — could not name anyone in the Defense Department who was in charge of ensuring that satellites and their corresponding terminals are fielded at the same time.
Cynamon said the cancellation of the Transformational-Satellite program hurt synchronization efforts.
“For a number of years, we were all focused on this transformational communication architecture. We had a very strong effort … to integrate. Admittedly, there is a bit of a void now,” he said. “We in the department are going through some changes organizationally as well funding challenges and requirements definitions.”
And it’s not only terminal programs that come late to the table. U.S. military and spy satellite programs are notorious for delays. The first Advanced-EHF was sent to orbit four years after its originally scheduled launch date. The lack of synchronization works both ways, said Bill Anderson, director of Army satcoms and WIN-T program manager. “We’re waiting for the Advanced-EHF satellite to get up there. We’ve got all the kits sitting in storage right now … The Army is in front of the game here and we’re being held up.”
The Navy’s mobile user objective system (MUOS), a protected UHF communications satellite, is also suffering delays. Meanwhile, when it does arrive on orbit 21 months behind schedule in late 2011, the joint tactical radio system rifleman radios and manpack variants aren’t expected to be anywhere near ready to be fielded.
Cynamon said one solution is for the military to move away from the “Big Bang Theory” — in other words — the delivery of new capabilities all at once. Adding features incrementally would lessen delays.
Of the three communication bands — narrow, wide and protected — there needs to be a second look at what belongs in the “protected” category, Cynamon said. Satellites such as the Advanced-EHF must withstand a nuclear attack and jamming. Some of the systems that fall under this much more complex and technologically challenging category could be moved into less complicated, and less costly, narrow- and wide-band satellites, he said. That could reduce delays.
Shaum Mittal, chief of the lead system engineering office at DISA’s program executive office for satellite, teleport and services, suggested that the military should only focus on protected systems, and let commercial satellite companies provide narrow- and wide-band communications.
“They do a good job and they can meet most of our requirements,” he said.
The Air Force needs to get its own house in order when it comes to fielding the much delayed family of advanced beyond-line-of-sight (FAB-T) terminals, Cynamon added.
“That’s a critical terminal capability to really maximize and basically get the capability that we want and need to have in the EHF enterprise. Fab-T must be fielded,” he said.
The first increment of the program would outfit B-2, B-52, RC-135, E-6 and E-4 aircraft in addition to one ground terminal. Lead contractor Boeing tested terminals in September 2009 on a 707 aircraft, but the program has been plagued by delays. Last summer, the Air Force on the FedBizOps website indicated that it was considering a new contractor. An industry day was held July 14, which attracted 19 participants, including Boeing.
A Space and Missile Systems Center briefing presented there said “due to cost and schedule growth, the Air Force in conjunction with [the office of the secretary of defense’s network and information integration office] is interested in determining the potential for an alternative source for development and production of FAB-T.” The briefing stressed that “currently, there is no approved acquisition strategy for an alternative source.”
The Government Accountability Office in its annual assessment of major weapon programs released last march blamed the FAB-T cost increases and delays on engineering and requirement changes and the complexity of integrating software codes.
As for the causes of the delays, John Lunardi, FAB-T program manager at Boeing, pointed to the complexity of the system and noted that the Air Force changed requirements after the program began.
“The Boeing team has adapted its design during the program’s system development and demonstration phase to meet evolving satellite and platform requirements,” he said in an email response to questions.
Of the seven FAB-T terminal programs mentioned in the briefing, none was expected to be fielded prior to fiscal year 2015. Even then, the numbers are relatively small at 215 terminals, the briefing indicated.
The first Advanced-EHF satellite launched in August will function as a MilStar II satellite — the series currently in use — and will be able to connect to legacy terminals. Its software later will be upgraded on orbit so it can link to terminals such as the FAB-T series. Because of the technical glitch which resulted in the slower than planned climb into geosynchronous orbit, some 25,000 miles above the Earth, it will arrive about seven months late.
The second Advanced-EHF satellite won’t be launched until after the first completes on orbit checkouts. The Advanced-EHF program requires at least two spacecraft for the system to work, explained Doug Loverro, executive director of the Space and Missile Systems Center.
If all goes as currently planned, the two spacecraft will be fully functional by 2013, he told reporters in a briefing. Despite the Advanced-EHF’s own delays, and assuming that the FAB-T programs regain their momentum, that will still leave a two-year gap.
Uhrich expressed frustration with these wasteful synchronization issues that last for years.
“We’re spending a-million-and-a-half to $2 million a day on Advanced-EHF to put this capability on orbit, but then we’re not going to put this terminal in the hands of the operator for several years after having the capability on orbit,” Uhrich said.
Even if the number of terminals grows, it still can be a loss, Cynamon said.
“If I field 85 percent of AEHF terminals, does that mean I really have full capability? What if that last 15 percent are some of the most critical terminals?”
So why not keep satellites in storage until the day when the terminals are ready?
It’s actually better to launch a spacecraft as soon as it’s ready than to keep it in storage, Loverro replied. Batteries and other components begin to degrade if they’re not in the vacuum of space where they are designed to function. It is costly to prepare them to launch again if they have been sitting on Earth for too long. It’s true there is some wear and tear of spacecraft in orbit, he said. They also use up some fuel when they need to be moved, which is not that often, he noted.
He acknowledged that the delays do lessen the operational value of a satellite.
However, trying to synchronize the arrival of a satellite on orbit with the arrival of terminals could result in further delays if there are complications during the launch or orbital check-out phases, such as the one the first Advanced-EHF is experiencing now.
“It’s not until we go through an operational test that we can really turn that over to the war fighter,” he said. Since the Advanced-EHF fleet requires two satellites, it could be a two-year process to get the whole system up and running, he said. “It’s not entirely out of synch,” he maintained.
“We don’t view that as a waste of the satellite’s capability. We view that as the necessary steps to go through in getting everything to a place where we can test it.”
As for the goal of achieving synchronization throughout the Defense Department, Loverro was not optimistic.
There is “a recognition that we can never match it perfectly, and therefore it would be somewhat questionable whether we should try to match it perfectly because it just won’t happen,” he added.