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Northrop Grumman Low Cost Terminals Near Certification, Fielding to Follow

By Caleb Henry | October 27, 2014
      Northrop Grumman LCT

      Airborne LCTs are set for their first demonstration in 2015. Photo: Northrop Grumman

      [Via Satellite 10-27-2014] Northrop Grumman and industry partners Lockheed Martin and Telecommunications Systems (TCS) are awaiting U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) certification for Low Cost Terminals (LCTs) the companies began developing five years ago. The terminals are funded 50-50 between Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, with TCS managing equipment purchases and terminal integration. Once complete, the companies hope to offer extremely high frequency LCTs to United States government customers.

      Earlier this month the companies debuted three new LCTs designed to work with the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) constellation for high-speed anti-jam connectivity for tactical users. Northrop Grumman is the lead for design, development and now the certification process. Progress on the terminals was delayed when it took longer than expected to find a certification sponsor. Originally designed for the U.S. Army, this step was not completed until 2013 when Air Force Special Operations (AFSOC) stood up and supported the terminal. Now the company is about two thirds of the way through certification, with the expectation of finishing next year.

      “What we’re moving towards is a certification in late 2015,” ‎Tim Frei, VP of communication systems at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems’ Space Systems Division told Via Satellite. “Once we get to a certain point in the certification, then we plan to do an over-the-air demonstration with an accredited terminal using the Extended Data Rate (XDR) waveform. That’s the last piece of the test that says: ‘this terminal works.’”

      Frei said the primary focus of the terminals is to make use of more capacity from the AEHF system. To date three AEHF satellites are in orbit, with the fourth in the final stage of preparation for a 2017 launch. Lockheed Martin is under contract to build a total of six AEHF satellites.

      “We saw a need for a terminal that didn’t have all the bells and whistles of a [Family of Advanced Beyond Line of Sight Terminal] FAB-T, wasn’t multi-band like an [Navy Multi-band Terminal] NMT, but could be readily available to tactical users that couldn’t otherwise afford the more expensive larger terminals. We thought that was important for preserving and advancing the whole protected satcom ecosystem,” Frei said.

      Frost & Sullivan Aerospace and Defense Research Director Wayne Plucker said in an interview with Via Satellite that the delivery of current terminal designs today has outpaced the insertion of the constellation. Cost has been a pivotal factor in the use of AEHF satellite communications. Because of this, he expects milsatcom systems such as AEHF to remain prioritized.

      “It is more expensive but necessary for mission success to have dedicated systems with a much higher level of security, reliability, and survivability. I see a split use scenario with comsatcom for immediate, low risk transmission, and milsatcom for high value, high risk data,” Plucker said.

      But Northrop Grumman and its industry partners hope to drive the cost down enough that military customers will not have to preserve AEHF for only the highest priority missions.

      “There is a perception out there that the warfighter can’t afford protected satcom when going on missions. The LCT is an effort to be able to provide protection to the warfighter community at the price that they are used to paying for unprotected [communications]. The LCT is going to change the paradigm,” Ronald Squires, director of business development and strategic planning at Northrop Grumman, told Via Satellite.

      Squire added that Northrop Grumman has been able to leverage the test equipment from building low, medium and extended data rate technology in the past.

      The LCTs use a form factor of an 18-inch test equipment rack that was modified to the form factor and functions of an airborne or ground terminal. The three variants unveiled are for Protected Comms-on-the-Move (P-COTM) for ground vehicles, P-COTM for aircraft, and TCS protected Ultra terminals. The terminals will be available for fielding within the next two years, with demonstrations of the airborne models set for 2015.