Boeing Winding Up Tests on FAB-T Terminals; Air Force May Push Back Down Select
The Boeing Co. has nearly wrapped up all the tests for the long-awaited Family of Advanced Beyond Line of Sight Terminals (FAB-T) program, the company’s program manager said Feb. 26.
The Boeing Co. and Raytheon Co. are in a two-way competition to build the satellite terminals, which will connect to the new Advanced-Extremely High Frequency satellites. The AEHF spacecraft are hardened against jamming and intended to provide protected communications in extreme conditions such as nuclear war.
Boeing is finishing in the next few weeks the security verification phase and reliability verification testing which includes about three months of being subjected to extreme heat and vibrations. There will then be some engineering and development models pushed out, Paul Geery told National Defense.
“Then we will just be in a wait mode for the production down-select decision,” he said. “I think that is moving to the right a month or two, because we just got a bunch of questions that we are going through the process of answering. I would guess, based on where they are at, that [the decision] is probably moving.” The program executive office has been saying the decision will come in the second quarter, he added.
When the Air Force makes its final decision, it will be the end of a long development road. Boeing was the original sole contractor on FAB-T when the program kicked off in 2002, but it became mired in delays and cost overruns. The Defense Department decided to re-introduce competition into the program and selected Raytheon in 2012 to begin developing its own terminals. The motive was to bring down the cost and get the program back on schedule.
The March decision will only be a down select for initial production work, and the final contract won’t be awarded until later this year. The Air Force announced late last year that it would only be purchasing command post ground stations meant for forward operating bases. Plans to integrate the terminals on B-2, B-52 bombers and RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft are on hold. The Air Force would be purchasing 84 ground stations, which includes the terminals themselves, the modems and antennas. The airborne version would have included 216 sets.
Geery has only been on the program for two and half years, but in his estimation, the delays were caused by the parallel development of the satellites and the ground terminals. There were two different contracts managed by two different Air Force offices.
“If you’re trying to design your com payload that goes on your satellite at the same time that you’re trying to design the com terminal that works on the ground, and at the same time you’re firming up the waveform that connects those things together, you’re kind of ripe for potential problems,” he said.
The Air Force is always going to insist that a ground system conforms to the multi-billion dollar satellite, he said. That meant when the specifications for the AEHF satellites changed, the terminals had to change as well. “The one major challenge early on was doing those things in parallel. … When both are being developed at the same time, both are moving targets.” One should have its design stabilized before the other was developed, he said.
Midway through the process, the hardware also had to be redesigned to conform to a change in requirements for more robust protection against nuclear threats, he said. The terminals are designed to function during nuclear war and to give the president command and control over forces.
After years of delays, the Air Force ended Boeing cost-plus contract, changed it to fixed price, and chose Raytheon as a competitor.
Scott Whatmough, vice president of integrated communications systems at Raytheon said Jan. 22 during a conference call with reporters that “Anytime there is competition, it forces creativity and innovative solutions,” he said. He was confident that the process will lower the price and, if Raytheon is selected, that it will be delivered on time.
Raytheon, in order to complete the project, took off-the-shelf technologies that the company had developed for other programs. Boeing’s terminal is purpose built.
Geery said the decision to introduce competition didn’t necessarily save time for the government because the down-select process takes longer. “We could be out ordering parts and doing all the long-lead stuff to ensure that we are in really great shape … now we have to wait a little bit as [the Air Force] works through the process.”
From the government perspective, it was a good back-up plan if one of the two contractors faltered, he said. “Wearing the government hat, it made a lot of sense.”