Military Wrestles With the High Cost of Satellite Terminals

By Stew Magnuson
Developing a new military communication satellite system can cost upwards of $1 billion. Putting one into orbit can run anywhere from $55 million to $90 million per launch. But that is nothing compared to buying and integrating the terminals required to link to them back on Earth.

Pricey spacecraft and rockets receive plenty of attention in the press and on Capitol Hill, but terminals are where the real savings are to be found for a  Defense Department challenged by decreasing budgets, industry and government officials said.

A case in point is the new Advanced-EHF military communication satellite program, which, after years of delays, now has three of the six planned spacecraft in orbit.

Tim Frei, vice president of communications systems at Northup Grumman’s space systems division said, “There are very few users on Advanced-EHF because of a lack of terminals. They’re not out there.” They have been developed, but they are not fielded in great quantities because they are not affordable, he said at the Milcom conference in San Diego.

The Navy’s new multiband terminals, which are designed to interface with Advanced-EHF satellites, are expected to cost $6.9 million per unit. Full capability isn’t expected until 2017, according to 2012 and 2013 Government Accountability Office assessments of the program. Current GAO estimates for the long-delayed family of advanced beyond line-of-sight terminals (FAB-T) intended for airborne and ground-based users show them at $18.6 million apiece.
Buying and installing the terminals can run anywhere from 20 to 30 times more than the cost of the rockets and spacecraft, said David Madden, executive director of military satellite communications at the Space and Missile Center.

“By far the number one cost in our business is the terminals and the terminal integration,” he said at the conference.

A long-standing problem that leads to waste and cost overruns is that satellite and terminal development programs are carried out separately. The Air Force, for example, builds spacecraft, while the Army might be in charge of the radios. Rarely do the Earth-bound communication devices reach the end of their development cycle at the same time as the satellites.

Cristina T. Chaplain, GAO director of acquisition and sourcing management, testified at the Senate Armed Services Committee last year that “ground control systems and user terminals in most of DoD’s major space system acquisitions are not optimally aligned, leading to underutilized satellites and limited capability provided to the war fighter.”

Chaplain pointed to the FAB-T program. The terminal has gone through numerous cost and schedule delays and is currently not synchronized with the Advanced-EHF satellites. The FAB-T program has yet to deliver any capabilities. Current estimates show that FAB-T will reach initial operational capability for some requirements in 2019, about five years after A-EHF reaches its initial operational capability, she said in April.

Air Force Space Command, which has no new-start milsatcom programs on the horizon, is looking at terminals as one of several ways to save funding in a period of austerity.

“We just can’t afford to replace all the terminals out there. … We have got to use the infrastructure we already have. If we don’t do that, we are DOA from the start,” Madden said.

One of the most depressing parts of his job, he said, is visiting a military unit and seeing its “terminal graveyard,” where 30 or so of the devices from a former program are sitting unused. Every time there is a new satellite, the services are forced to develop a new terminal from the ground up. The command is looking at ways to leverage what is already available.

“How do we use the ones we’ve built, change the modems out, change the feed and move forward? Instead we continue to start from ground zero in building new systems. How do we leverage the commercial terminal market and take advantage of that ... to drive down costs?” Madden asked.

“If we can’t do that, what we’re finding is that no matter how good a protective system we put together, we can’t afford the terminals for it, therefore we have very limited usage. And with limited usage, do we really have a system?” he asked.

Chaplain said a key GAO recommendation is to do away with the fragmented leadership in military space programs.

“The administration has taken an initial step to improve interagency coordination, but has not fully addressed the issues of fragmented leadership and a lack of a single authority in overseeing the acquisition of space programs,” she testified.

Frei said: “Why did [terminals] become unaffordable? They tried to be all things to all users, and that probably wasn’t the right proposition.”

Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and TeleCommunication Systems Inc. announced in September 2012 that they were teaming up to market new lower cost terminals.

Since then, the consortium has found a sponsor to put the new terminal through the certification process, Air Force Special Operations Command, but it wanted an airborne terminal rather than the ground-based version. The companies reconfigured it. Certification will take about 18 months, Frei said.

To bring down the cost of terminals, “You have to look at the entire architecture of the system — the ground infrastructure, the ground terminals and the space assets — and try to figure out how to evolve your systems,” he said.

Once a satellite is launched, it can be in space for decades, Frei said.

“The bottom line is whatever we do next with the next-generation systems or the modifications that we do, it’s what we’re going to have to live with for the next 20 years,” he noted.

While a single terminal can cost millions of dollars, according to GAO, an overlooked expense is the integration and installation of terminals into vehicles and aircraft.

Joseph Carierre, former acquisition executive for milsatcom terminals at the Space and Missile Center, said how to lower the cost of terminals was a question he asked the day he began his former job. “I’m still asking the same question. And I still don’t know the answer,” he told National Defense.

“It was supposed to happen in the FAB-T program, but it clearly didn’t,” he said.

One factor few people talk about is integrating each terminal into an aircraft. The act of removing old terminals and installing new ones can skyrocket when it involves tampering with the skin of a jetfighter or other aircraft. 

“Once you go to integrate it into an aircraft. Boom. The huge bill comes. Even if I build a low-cost terminal, how do I get it on a jet without a huge [integration and implementation] bill?” he asked.

Another new milsatcom system is the Mobile User Objective System, MUOS, a Navy program, which has so far launched two satellites and is optimized for communications on the move. The second is on orbit, but won’t be commissioned until later this year, according to a Lockheed Martin press release.

Lt. Gen. John A. Toolan Jr., commanding general of 1 Marine Expeditionary Force, slammed the Army administered joint tactical radio system program, JTRS, during the Milcom conference for delays delivering the software that operate the terminals. The Corps needs the satellite system’s ability to send data while expeditionary forces are mobile, he said.

“We have been waiting a while for that thing (MUOS) to be developed. It will be a great leap forward in satellite capacity, but it should have been with us years ago. ... We need the MUOS capability ASAP,” he said.

The Army is looking to purchase a large quantity of backpackable radios, the HMS manpack, which will connect to the MUOS satellite.

Dennis Moran, vice president of radio manufacturer, Harris Corp., said in an interview that the software-defined radios such as HMS manpack, which use digital communications rather than analog to transmit voice and data, are finally coming into their own, and the military can leverage the standardized waveforms to bring down terminal costs.

“We have been patiently waiting for the government to place the MUOS waveform into the JTRS information repository in the sufficient state that it is ready to port to our platforms, and that event has occurred,” he said. Harris is one of the vendors competing for the HMS manpack program.

The new era of software-defined radios and terminals means that manufacturers that don’t traditionally sell to the military will jump in the market to compete for these contracts, bring innovative ideas, and ultimately drive the price of communication devices down, he said.
“It’s more of a commercial model than anything else,” he said in an interview.

Bill Beamish, director of product line management at Harris, said the JTRS model is based on PCs and Microsoft. As long as a computer manufacturer has the right specifications, it can install Windows.

Using these government-owned standardized waveforms will allow updated versions to be installed relatively quickly and inexpensively, similar to an updated version of Word in a PC.

“The JTRS program hasn’t really achieved the level that we have seen with PCs, but fundamental cost reduction is in fact there because as improvements are made ... vendors can port that to their radios and terminal relatively painlessly,” Beamish said.

Moran said software-defined radios and terminals will also allow for upgrades to occur without ripping out old devices from aircraft and vehicles.

“The installation piece of this is becoming one of the dominant considerations when they design to specifications for radio systems,” Moran said.

“The challenge is making sure the right antenna is mounted in the right place. But it is easier to change out an antenna than to totally reinstall a radio,” he noted.

Moran added: “In theory, this should be a pretty significant cost savings.”

Alan Jahn, manager of airborne communication sales at Rockwell Collins, said, “The integration cost on a platform is enormous. … If you can do a drop-in replacement, obviously you don’t have any integration costs.”

Rockwell Collins terminals, as they are upgraded, are designed to occupy the same space on a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft.

“They have the same mounts, same wiring, same pin-outs, so you don’t have that integration process,” he said.

Moran said the same goes for ground vehicles, although there aren’t the flight safety concerns one sees in an aircraft program.

“When you look at the sheer numbers of installations of ground terminals, you had better pay attention to variants that you have,” he said.

The Army is insisting that the next generation of software-defined radios on its tactical wheeled or combat vehicles occupy the same space as the old analog radios. The antenna interfaces and the way the radio connects to intercom systems must also be similar, Moran said.           

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Space

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