Updated Jan. 24 at 5:18 p.m. EDT

MARLBOROUGH, Mass. — The U.S. Department of Defense has officially decided to limit its procurement of a new satellite terminal for commanding nuclear operations to versions installed on ground and airborne command posts only, a move that will help contain costs on the multibillion-dollar project, according to the companies bidding for the work. 

Previously the Pentagon was considering a wider Family of Advanced Beyond Line-of-Sight Terminals (FAB-T) program that included equipping its strategic bombers and certain electronic surveillance aircraft with the system. 

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

The downselect for the FAB-T prime contract, previously slated for January, is now expected in March, according to Scott Whatmough, Raytheon vice president of integrated communication systems. A final contract is expected later in 2014. 

As recently as October, the Air Force was asking Boeing and Raytheon to submit their competing FAB-T bids with two options: one for 84 ground and airborne command post terminals, and one that also included outfitting 132 strategic bombers and electronic intelligence aircraft with the capability. 

Since 2012, however, there have been strong indications that the Air Force was leaning toward the lower-priced option. Boeing and Raytheon officials say the Air Force made that decision official in late December.

“When the time is right, they’ll have options” with terminals for the bombers, Whatmough said in an interview at Raytheon’s facilities here. “I think they made a decision they had to make.”

In a separate telephone interview, Boeing’s project manager, Paul Geery, said he believes the bomber capability could resurface in future years once the Air Force sees firsthand what the FAB-T provides.

The FAB-T program, projected to cost as much as $4.5 billion, has been in development for more than 10 years. Boeing initially was selected as prime contractor, but the Air Force funded a competing effort by Raytheon starting in 2012 after Boeing’s struggles on the effort led to cost growth and delays.

Air Force acquisition officials have complained recently that terminal programs are among the costliest in the space business.

In the recently passed omnibus spending bill for 2014, Congress provided about $220 million for military satellite communications terminal programs, including FAB-T, roughly $20 million less than the White House requested. Lawmakers cited FAB-T as the reason for the reduction without providing additional details. 

Raytheon says more than 1,100 employees work at the Marlborough facility, but executives declined to specify exactly how many are assigned to the FAB-T program. The 6,500-square-meter satellite communications building, which opened in 2002, includes chambers to submit the terminals to temperatures ranging from minus 40 to 71 degrees Celsius. An outdoor area contains several oversized prototypes. 

Raytheon believes its work on other military satellite terminals — specifically the Secure Mobile Anti-Jam Reliable Tactical Terminal mounted on Humvees, the first industry terminal to connect to the AEHF satellites; and the Navy Multiband Terminal — sets the company up for success in the competition. In December, Raytheon won a $134 million Air Force contract to develop the Global Aircrew Strategic Network Terminal, which transmits emergency messages to aircrews during nuclear missions. 

In all, Raytheon has delivered more than 500 terminals to the Defense Department.

Brian Gray, Raytheon’s product line manager, said more than 90 percent of the technology for its FAB-T prototypes comes from the company’s previous terminal work. For example, 80 percent of the software code used in programming the terminal was already developed and used on prior projects. 

Boeing’s Geery acknowledged Raytheon’s experience makes the company a natural competitor and ideal alternate for the Air Force, but added, “They’ve got some work to do to play catchup.”

Specifically, Geery said, Boeing completed qualification testing of its FAB-T prototype in August, whereas Raytheon expects to start those tests in March.

Reliability testing of Boeing’s system is slated to wrap up in March, Geery added. “We’re anxiously awaiting the decision,” he said. “We’re feeling good.”

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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...