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Future Milsatcom Strategy Requires Balanced Equation of Economics, Technology

By | September 1, 2012

      Planning, procuring and building out the next-generation milsatcom architecture is no easy task these days for decision-makers and system planners working in the Pentagon. Not only must military satcom architects develop capability across a range of space mission requirements and integrate new technology, but they must also procure systems that will enhance the utility and affordability of current and future space assets.

      The need for advanced satellite capability is no longer just based on growing user needs and meeting core capabilities. The current, and most likely enduring environment of budget shortfalls have forced the U.S. Department of Defense and other government agencies dependent on satellite communication to explore new financial and contractual methods of operation.
      Fortunately for the U.S. government’s top military brass, the Pentagon has developed a flexible and accommodating relationship with its commercial satellite partners during the past few years., as evidenced by recent economic and technological developments with its most trusted contractors.

      DARPA as the New DISA

      In 2010, the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) issued their solicitation for the $5 billion, 10-year Future Commercial Satellite Communications Services Acquisition (FCSA). The program was created after the two agencies announced they would combine the civilian and military commercial satellite acquisition vehicles into a one-stop shop. At the time, the multiple-award schedule and indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity FCSA was seen as a significant endorsement of the commercial satellite industry’s ability to meet government requirements as it intended to replace satellite communications contracts that would expire during the next two-and-a-half years. 

      The next major step for commercial satellite providers to the military would come two years later with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) taking a lead role in military’s space sustainability efforts. DARPA’s wide-ranging initiative aimed to open up a dialogue within the international space community regarding on-orbit satellite servicing, adopting the same strategy that the Hosted Payload Alliance formed to lobby for the procurement of hosted payload platforms. The agency’s new Phoenix program to develop and demonstrate technologies that cooperatively harvest and re-use valuable components from retired, non-working satellites in GEO, will likely be pushed as a catalyst in creating new space systems at reduced costs during a time when space budgets are being slashed by the U.S. government.

      But DARPA Phoenix program manager Dave Barnhart says the agency is looking for more than just an opportunity to foster international discussion on satellite servicing. “In concert with the global space community and our international partners, we hope to create innovative technologies and techniques for space-to-space activities,” says Barnhart. “If successful, re-using existing satellite components may not only dramatically lower the cost of GEO satellite missions for the U.S. Department of Defense’s needs, but may also serve to demonstrate, through advanced techniques and technology, a model for future on-orbit servicing activities.”

      DARPA calculates that there are currently about 1,300 GEO satellites worth more than $300 billion in orbit that could be retrofitted for new purposes. DARPA’s Phoenix system employs a class of small nano-satellites that are designed to ride as a secondary passenger on a commercial satellite launch payload heading to GEO orbit. The nano-satellite would then attach to the antenna of a non-operational satellite to create a new space system.

      “Many of the satellites which are obsolete or have failed still have usable antennas, solar arrays and other components which are expected to last much longer than the life of the satellite, but currently there is no way to re-use them,” says Barnhart. “DARPA pioneered on-orbit satellite servicing with the successful 2007 Orbital Express demonstrator mission. Future widespread pursuit of on-orbit satellite servicing would benefit from discussions regarding the broad spectrum of technical challenges and non-technical obstacles ranging from policy, legal and other constraints that may hamper progress in this field.”

      DARPA has awarded about $36 million in contracts during the last three months to companies interested in building system components for the Phoenix program. DARPA added that a Payload Orbital Delivery System (PODS) would also be designed under the program to safely house the nano-satellites for transport aboard a commercial satellite launch vehicle. In a statement, Barnhart said the agency expects to have an on-orbit demonstration of at least one successful aperture repurposing using a robotic GEO spacecraft in 2015 or 2016. The on-orbit demonstration will take place in either a GEO, super-GEO or graveyard orbit.

      Boeing is one of the beneficiaries of DARPA’s efforts. The company was awarded an 18-month, $4.5 million DARPA study contract in June to evaluate technologies for on-demand small satellite launch systems. The Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) award contracts Boeing to analyze affordable, aircraft-based satellite launch platforms that can quickly deploy small satellites or payloads. The goal of ALASA is to generate a minimal threefold reduction in costs compared with current military and U.S. commercial launch costs.

      “We will apply experience from across Boeing in aircraft and launch system development and operation, as well as our proven rapid prototyping skills, to offer an innovative analysis to support this important DARPA mission,” says Steve Johnston, Boeing’s director of advanced space exploration. “ALASA will expand our knowledge of launch system solutions that can be integrated into existing operational aircraft with minimal modifications.”

      DARPA’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed. In some cases, other government and military organizations are emulating the agency’s tactics. The U.S. Air Force issued a request to the satellite industry early this past summer seeking ideas on developing the next generation of military weather satellites and satellite sensor payloads.

      The Air Force gave commercial satellite companies one year to submit white papers on the topic, and promising those submitting acceptable ideas a chance to bid on follow-on contracts.

      DARPA’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed. In some cases, other government and military organizations are emulating the agency’s tactics. The U.S. Air Force issued a request to the satellite industry early this past summer seeking ideas on developing the next generation of military weather satellites and satellite sensor payloads. Col. Scott Larrimore, director of Air Force Defense Weather Systems says the military intends to spend $7 million in the initial phases of development to define the weather satellite itself, $6 million to define its microwave environmental sensor, and as much as $14 million to define its electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) environmental sensor. “The space-based EO/IR weather sensors should be able to provide detailed imagery of conditions such as cloud cover and layers, cloud top temperature, snow cover and sea ice,” says Larrimore. “Our preference is to spend no more than $83 million total. Contracts should be for 12 to 15 months.”

      As for DISA and the GSA, the joint partners have no intentions of slowing down their efforts with FCSA, as it has extended the program to include four Custom Satellite Communications Solutions–Small Business (CS2-SB) contracts for small businesses. CS2-SB contract holders competed for task orders with a five-year contract period, or three base years with two, one-year options, and a $900 million ceiling that consisted solely of satellite professional support services such as analysis and testing. CS2-SB and the future CS2 award, aim to provide access to customer defined end-to-end solutions that include satellite bandwidth, teleport access, network management and the equipment needed for satellite communications.

      The CS2-SB program, says GSA federal acquisition service commissioner Steven Kempf, would increase the government’s reliance on commercial satellite services to provide essential, secure communications to disaster recovery teams, emergency responders, distant learning services and the military.

       “This phase of awards gives small businesses increased access to the federal marketplace while reducing government costs,” says Kempf. “We continue to see the great benefits of combining DISA and GSA acquisition expertise and experience to deliver a lower cost option to federal agencies that need to purchase mission-critical satellite services. CS2-SB is the first of two sets of indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contracts for customized end-to-end satellite services solutions.”

      The Financial Implications of AEHF, FAB-T

      Boeing may have made one of the year’s biggest technological splashes with its electric propulsion satellites, but it made an even bigger economic ripple in the military satellite world when it initiated discussions to alter the terms of a $235 million contract it won with the Air Force in 2002. Boeing offered a structure that included a guarantee not to exceed ceiling for the remaining development work on the Family of Advanced Beyond-line-of-sight Terminal (FAB-T) ground stations that would operate new Air Force communications satellites, changing the overall format from its cost-plus terms format to a lower-risk fixed-price structure.

      There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Boeing and other military manufacturers have been under pressure to adapt their contracts to current budget realities. The Pentagon nearly terminated Boeing’s FAB-T program in January after development costs expanded from an originally projected $235 million price tag to $1.6 billion. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report in March that cited ongoing problems with the FAB-T program, noting that Pentagon officials believed it would not be completed until 2017 — nearly three years after military planned to begin using the Lockheed Martin Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites for which the FAB-T terminals were being developed. The Air Force’s fiscal 2013 budget proposal included $107.5 million in funding to continue work on the FAB-T program, which was less than half of the $231.2 million allocated in its fiscal 2012 budget proposal.

      Since then, the Air Force has invited other companies to submit competitive bids for alternate systems as part of an effort to crack down on satellite program cost increases. The outreach attracted Raytheon to submit a proposal to the Air Force in June for the FAB-T alternate program to provide secure, anti-jam communications for the U.S. president and senior military advisers.

      Scott Whatmough, Raytheon’s Network Centric Systems vice president of integrated communication systems, says his company has long been pushing for an alternate Air Force satellite terminal program, as the three AEHF military terminals it currently produces already meet 80 percent of the Air Force’s requirements.

      “Raytheon is well positioned to provide the Air Force exactly what it is looking for — reliable, efficient, cost-effective terminals to handle one of the nation’s most sensitive and important communications needs,” says Whatmough. “We already meet a substantial number of technical requirements and we will leverage them to meet the Air Force’s timeline for operational terminals by 2015. The Raytheon AEHF terminals have passed production acquisition milestone decisions and successfully tested with the on-orbit AEHF satellite, demonstrating interoperable communications using the satellite’s Extended Data Rate (XDR) waveform.”

      The Air Force’s timetable was expedited due to the launch of its AEHF 2 satellite in May. The $1.7 billion satellite is part of the AEHF network, which is ultimately envisioned to include up to six spacecraft as an upgrade over the military’s current Milstar system of five functioning satellites, the first of which launched in 1994. AEHF 1 launched in August 2010, but its main engine failed to fire as planned to lift it to its final orbit. The spacecraft’s controllers managed to save it, however, using secondary thrusters to boost it to the correct location over a span of 14 months.

      “The second AEHF spacecraft will provide greater connectivity, flexibility and control to U.S. and international partner forces,” says Col. Michael Sarchet, the government’s AEHF program manager. “The AEHF constellation will augment and replace the venerable Milstar constellation, improving on many capabilities to include 10 times greater throughput. AEHF will provide global, secure, jam-resistant communications for military operations on land, sea and air. The network features the highest levels of encryption, and it will allow commanders to control their forces at all levels of conflict through general nuclear war.”

      Industry Predictions on the Future Milsatcom Environment

      Considering the aforementioned catalysts in the government military satcom space, William Ostrove, space systems analyst at Forecast International, predicts that governments will increasingly employ the services of commercial satellite operators despite long-lasting anxiety regarding the sector’s health due to budget cuts. “Rather than purchasing new satellites, governments are turning to commercial operators, often deploying their communication packages aboard commercial satellites under a scheme known as hosted payloads.

      The top manufacturers in the commercial communications satellite industry during the next 10 years will be Space Systems/Loral, Thales Alenia Space, EADS Astrium, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.”

      Ostrove also sees the military turning more towards smaller, more manageable systems in terms of both cost and operation. “The military is moving toward using CubeSats more often,” says Ostrove. “It’s not only the cost or the ability to upgrade quickly, but also the fact that they’re tough targets for foreign powers to shoot out of the sky. It’s hard to hit a target that is roughly the size of a coffee cup screaming across the sky. These tiny satellites cost anywhere from five figures to several hundred thousand dollars.”

      Roger Krone, president of Boeing Network and Space Systems, doesn’t see larger players in the military space taking a backseat anytime soon. He says the traditional military satellite providers have learned several lessons after the cancellation of the U.S. Air Force’s Transformational Satellite Communications (TSAT) program in April 2009. Boeing’s re-entry into the satellite design market came months later with the introduction of our 702B medium-power satellite model, which was implemented to offset the company’s loss from the termination.

      “The WGS satellites we are building for the Pentagon, for example, are a result of our collaborative partnership with the Air Force and the technology we used to change the six-satellite contract to a fixed-price structure,” says Krone. “This made us able to significantly reduce the cost of WGS by changing the way we operate, oversight, find suppliers and manufacture. The WGS satellite model is based on a commercial bus that we had already built and have placed into orbit. It has a very mature design and we know how to build it. All of these things really lend themselves to the different contract structure. Because we went with a fixed-cost contract structure, the Air Force now knows exactly what WGS is going to cost and when they are going to get it. We’re able to operate in a thinner oversight environment. The fewer reviews involved allow us to dedicate more people building the satellite.

      Boeing and other manufacturers still see space as a growth market, but the rate of growth the sector enjoyed during the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iran. With land operations winding down and warfare happening more often in the cyberspace arena, Krone sees WGS as a model for other programs under the government budget axe. “We see WGS as having one of those models that emerged out of the issues surrounding the budget and the deficit,” he says. “We think this model as a critical element of our success as we see military budget issues endure.”

      But Krone also acknowledged the efforts of DARPA, DISA and GSA in creating a more sustainable environment in space as the core component of the future-oriented military space architecture. “Overall, what I see in the space market is a replacement of transponders in GEO orbit. For example, we’re going to see NOAA replace its Earth observation satellites. Even Iridium and the GPS constellation is all replacement and in some ways, WGS is a replacement for some of the milsatcom. There’s going to be a sizable market for replacement and a sizable market for new satellite capabilities.”