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Air Force Wants Expedited Recertification of AEHF Satellite System

By | September 15, 2008


      The Air Force has asked the Department of Defense (DOD) expedite the review process triggered by massive cost growth of the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite communications system so that the service may accurately budget the project in its six-year fiscal plan beginning in 2010.

      "It is not a program that is wildly out of control," Gary Payton, the deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space, told reporters during a teleconference.

      A follow-on to the Milstar system, AEHF is a joint service system intended to provide global, secure, jam-resistant communications for military ground, sea, and air assets.

      Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT], the prime contractor, has partnered with Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] in the development effort. Lockheed serves as developer of the ground segment, and provides the satellite bus. The firm also is the space vehicle integrator and overall systems integrator and prime contractor. Northrop is to contribute the payload and associated components, such as the digital processor and radio frequency equipment.

      The Air Force attributed the recent cost growth — which caused the program to breach the 25 percent Nunn-McCurdy cost-growth cap — primarily to the late addition of a fourth space vehicle mandated by Congress. The total estimated cost of the program has reached roughly $9.24 billion — $6.3 billion for the first two space vehicles, $939 million for the third and $2 billion for the fourth, according to Payton.

      Lockheed expects to deliver the first space vehicle (SV-1) to the Air Force in March. The second and third satellites are close behind in the production flow, according to a company statement.

      SV-4’s higher price tag is the direct result of restarting the Lockheed Martin production line after an extended pause, according to the company.

      "The increased estimates for SV-4 are the result of a production break of four years since the SV-3 contract award, resulting in the closure of the supply chain which will be reconstituted, but at increased costs," Lockheed Martin spokesman Stephen Tatum said via e-mail.

      In addition, SV-1 integration difficulties had an adverse impact on the launch of SV-2 and SV-3, resulting in some cost growth, the company acknowledged.

      "Similar circumstances have impacted other national security space programs in the same way," Tatum explained. "In general, large complex space development programs of the modern era are cutting-edge, first-of-their-kind systems requiring revolutionary technologies and capabilities."

      Payton said the total program cost estimate could still change following the Nunn-McCurdy recertification process. Despite the difficulties, he insisted that the program remains on track.

      "We have stable requirements, we have an engineering baseline that is stable," he said. "The design is stable."

      The Nunn-McCurdy recertification process includes an analysis of program alternatives. Payton said the Transformational Satellite (TSAT) program, a follow-on satcom effort currently in competition, could be impacted by the DOD AEHF review.

      "Clearly there’s a connectivity between AEHF and TSAT," Payton said. He did not elaborate on specific implications for TSAT.

      Teams led by The Boeing Co. [BA] and Lockheed Martin are competing for the TSAT effort, which is intended to provide secure, high-bandwidth communications to users on the move.

      The AEHF SV-4 was added during a major TSAT review earlier this year. A review of TSAT alternatives, also triggered by cost concerns, resulted in a revalidation of that effort in May. Payton said the TSAT contract is soon to be awarded, but "not before November."

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