Q&A with Dan Hart, Boeing’s Point Person for Government and Military Space

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Profile | Dan Hart
Vice president of government satellite systems, Boeing Network & Space Systems


Military satellite contracts are hard to come by these days, even for a top-tier contractor like Boeing. The primary reason is that the U.S. Air Force is on the back end of latest fleet recapitalization development cycle, with most of the programs now in production by Boeing archrival Lockheed Martin.

But Boeing sees opportunity as the Air Force ponders its next-generation architecture. For some programs, the service is considering commercial like approaches that could play to Boeing’s strength as a leading manufacturer of high-end commercial telecommunications satellites.

As it is, Boeing is prime contractor on the Wideband Global Satcom satellites, the seventh of which — the Air Force has ordered a total of 10 — is slated to launch in July. Boeing is looking for ways to extend that production line, even as the Air Force mulls procuring that general-purpose communications capability commercially.

In the area of secure communications, Boeing is helping develop a protected tactical waveform that the company says could be used on future WGS or commercial satellites to replicate some of the capabilities aboard the Lockheed Martin-built Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites. As Boeing’s point person for government and military space, Dan Hart advocates disaggregating the AEHF mission by flying its tactical and strategic capabilities on different spacecraft.

Another potential opportunity is the next batch of GPS 3 positioning, navigation and timing satellites, which the Air Force might put out for bid in 2017 or 2018. As prime contractor on the current-generation GPS 2F satellites now being launched, Boeing hopes to wrest that business from Lockheed Martin.

Hart, who also is responsible for civil government programs including NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System, spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Mike Gruss.


What kind of GPS work is Boeing doing now that the 2Fs are out of production?

The 2Fs are complete. We’ve launched five of them in the last 13 months — the highest launch rate in 20 years. Those are operating great. Of course, over a long span, we saw the need to go to a digital payload. We’ve been investing in the development. We have prototypes in the lab. We’ve completed a lot of the early design phase.

How long might a digital payload take?

We’ve done some significant spacecraft developments in the last five years or so and expanded our 702 family of satellites. We developed the 702MP satellite for Intelsat with a new payload for them. We just launched the first 702SP all-electric propulsion satellites, also developed for commercial customers. Each was on the order of 32 months. We’ve done developments in less time in a couple cases. We have a development team that is experienced and pretty well primed.

Are you working with other companies to develop the digital payload?

I’d rather not go there.

Exelis had trouble with the navigation payload for the GPS 3 program. Boeing has worked with Exelis on payloads for previous-generation GPS craft. Did you encounter any issues there?

Yeah. We know the playbook and we see it playing out again.

Lockheed Martin is under contract for eight GPS 3 satellites and likely will be tasked to build at least two more. How do you see the Air Force’s acquisition strategy for follow-on satellites evolving?

We’ve seen some of the shifting going on and there are two ways to handle the acquisition. Fundamentally, it can either be approached in a traditional manner, sort of what we saw last summer, in which the government would fund the nonrecurring costs and prepare for a competition. Or, if the government wants industry to invest, we would recommend structuring it like we would do commercial satellite sales. The government would buy a block of satellites and industry invests in non-recurring [technology and design] to make it happen. You’re really buying the satellites so that the investment and revenue stream are tied together. If we’re going to make a nonrecurring investment, there’s got to be a predictable subset of that block that goes together so that we can close our business case.

Can you walk me through a scenario where the Air Force buys more than 10 WGS satellites?

We see sparks — we don’t see budget lines yet as far as Air Force plans. We’re working closely with the Air Force and NATO and their international partners. We see WGS as able to be on the higher end of protected tactical communications services. We think the future wideband comms architecture is going to be a hybrid of WGS satellites, hosted payloads and communication services. Some satellites will be government owned in cases where ownership drives affordability or where they are heavily tailored for government missions. The commercial world has some wonderful flexibility that can augment, add regional coverage and add options to drive resiliency. The protected tactical waveform needs to be fielded. That’s an enabler.

So a mix of WGS and commercial satellites?

Yes. Definitely.

WGS-4
WGS-4. Credit: Boeing

The Air Force earlier this year awarded Boeing contracts for improved anti-jam capabilities. What kinds of upgrades are needed?

WGS is a military focused satellite. It’s got the X-band, it’s got the Ka band, it’s got cross channeling. It’s got a lot of steering and adaptability of the beams. It’s not the run of the mill, off-the-shelf satellite. As we look forward, there are likely some new requirements on anti-jam. There are things you can do with the apertures. There are things you can do with phased arrays that can harden you further. We have a road map that can take WGS and continue to evolve it that way. With the bandwidth we have and [frequency] hopping capability, it’s already pretty stout.

What’s Boeing doing for the Air Force’s protected tactical waveform development program?

We’ve gotten great results. We did a test on WGS F-7. We also did a test on the Intelsat Epic. On F-7 we injected a simulated jammed environment. We got hard data on the protected tactical waveform and the technical community was very encouraged by the performance. That will enable us to move to a protected architecture in the near-term without buying a new fleet of satellites.

When do you see the protected tactical waveform being introduced into the architecture?

We think it’s possible as early as 2018. But it would take some additional funding from what we see there currently.

Funding for the ground-side?

Oh yeah. That’s what’s nice about this. The current path is making great progress on the modems. There’s some more work that needs to be done on the hubs and the mission planning system.

What does Boeing have to offer in the area of highly secure communications now provided by the AEHF satellites?

AEHF can be made much more affordable by pulling the tactical missions off of it and focusing solely on the nuclear mission. You have dissimilar requirements on the same platform. That always equals high cost and that’s been empirically proven to be the case. You want to focus the requirements on the mission, on the environments. You’ve got a nuclear mission that has specific security requirements, has specific environment requirements, you name it, it’s got it. Pull the other parts off of it that that don’t need [those capabilities] because the cost is being transferred to the whole system. Focus on a smaller, simpler nuclear mission. Then we would take our domain knowledge in EHF, marry it with our digital payload capability and our commercial platform, and provide an offering which we think would be high performance and much lower cost and focused on the nuclear mission.

Do you think the Air Force will actually go through with disaggregating the AEHF mission?

We think there’s a lot of support to go in the direction that I’m describing. Then the whole wideband story and protected tactical waveform becomes very important. This is where the Protected Tactical Waveform is so important. First we incorporate PTW into the ground and use it to protect comms for tactical users across WGS and some of the commercial fleets. Next we incrementally evolve those systems with the additional satellite anti-jam features needed for a tactical environment. We don’t incur the expense of nuclear hardening them. It’s a different mission.

Boeing was prime contractor on the Air Force’s Space Based Space Surveillance Block 10 satellite, which keeps tabs on geostationary orbit from a vantage point in low Earth orbit. The Air Force is leaning toward a follow on mission using a trio of smaller satellites in a higher orbit. Is Boeing positioned to win that work?

We gained a huge amount of experience in developing and operating SBSS. It’s been a great performance boost in the area of [space situational awareness.] We’ve got our concept and design for a follow-on and we’ve gotten some very good feedback in our discussions.

Does your concept look like the Block 10?

It doesn’t look like the Block 10. I can’t go into more.

Here’s the obligatory question about the secrecy-shrouded X-37B spaceplane. What can you tell us about any recent progress?

I’ll say this: As Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, said the other day, it’s a very cool vehicle. It’s an honor to be working and supporting the Air Force and it’s at the forefront of reusable space. I’ll emphasize the last part. We are really plowing new ground for reusable space.

What do you hope to see from the Air Force in the next six to 12 months?

There are these analyses of alternatives [on protected and wideband communications]. Are we going to be moving beyond those? What are the results? Those will be key. There’s a lot of discussion about hosted payloads. There’s a lot of discussion about different acquisition approaches. Will there be serious progress? You see the desire, the logic, and you hear it in a lot of discussions, so the leadership gets it, but there’s work to do get the policy there.

What would you recommend?

There are opportunities for ways we authorize use of spectrum so hosted payloads could be more easily integrated into our architecture. Then, there’s acquisition approaches. Going back to GPS, enabling commercial-like acquisition of satellites. We’ve made progress there. WGS is operating in a unique manner and F-8 will double the capacity of the spacecraft and be 20 percent less expensive than the last block because we moved to this firm fixed price and a smaller oversight model. If we can continue to push commercial procurement models, that’s another area of improvement.