WASHINGTON — Boeing and Raytheon are performing final tests and documentation for a hotly contested military satellite communications terminal project before the U.S. Air Force downselects to a single contractor in January. 

Boeing Network and Space Systems of Arlington, Va., and McKinney, Texas-based Raytheon Network Centric Systems are developing competing Family of Beyond Line of Sight-Terminal (FAB-T) systems, which would enable the president to communicate with the national command authority in the event of a nuclear war. The terminals are designed to operate with the Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) constellation of highly secure, jam-proof communications satellites.

In January, the Air Force is expected to unveil the full scope of the FAB-T program and specifically whether it will deploy the terminals at ground and airborne command centers only, or also include them aboard strategic bombers and certain electronic-surveillance aircraft. Indications are that the service is leaning toward the former, lower-priced, option.

The Government Accountability Office has said both companies were expected to submit plans for both price points.

In a Nov. 26 interview, Paul Geery, Boeing’s FAB-T program manger, said the Air Force is “ecstatic” about the performance of its FAB-T prototype terminals. 

Boeing recently completed flight tests with its prototype aboard a Boeing 707 aircraft at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass. The test required sustained connections and data transfers via the AEHF and legacy Milstar satellites during maneuvers such as takeoffs and landings. The tests were conducted on terminals for both airborne command centers and strategic bombers. Air Force officials were on site and leading the demonstration.

“Our mature offering puts us in great shape to deliver the total FAB-T configuration,” Geery said in Nov. 25 press release. 

But Pentagon leaders will be weighing more than performance in an uncertain budget environment. During the interview, Geery said price would also factor into the decision. Air Force acquisition officials have complained recently that terminal programs are among the costliest in the space business.

If the Air Force chooses to purchase the command-post terminals only, it would buy 84 units, Geery said. If the service opts for the command post and strategic bomber/surveillance aircraft option, it would buy 216 terminals. 

Boeing has produced 11 prototype terminals as part of its development program.

Raytheon officials previously indicated that they planned to do “over-the-air” testing of the company’s FAB-T prototype in October, connecting with the AEHF constellation — two satellites are in orbit — and proving the system’s capabilities. A third satellite launched in September. Raytheon spokesman Peter Ramjug declined to comment for this article.

The FAB-T program, projected to cost $4.5 billion, has been in development for more than 10 years. Boeing initially was selected as FAB-T prime contractor, but the Air Force funded a competing effort by Raytheon starting last year after Boeing’s struggles led to cost growth and delays on the effort.

Geery said he expects the government will request one more round of documentation and updates before the downselect.

FAB-T is one of several space-related programs facing uncertain funding as Congress debates the Defense Department’s budget for the remainder of 2014. In its version of the 2014 defense spending bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended spending $246 million on military satellite communications terminals, including FAB-T, which is $90 million less than the Air Force requested.

When asked if the Air Force could delay the downselect decision for six months — it has already been pushed back slightly from December — Geery said he was doubtful. “They have to make a decision,” he said.

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Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...