Lockheed Eyes Partnerships to Keep MUOS Production Lines Warm

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Updated Feb. 17 at 11:01 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin, in concert with the Pentagon, is looking to drum up interest among U.S. allies in the next-generation satellite communications system it is building for the U.S. Navy as means of sustaining the existing production line until the service is ready to procure more, a senior company executive said.

By funding construction of a sixth satellite in the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), the participating country, or countries, would get full access to the constellation, designed to provide smartphone-like communications almost anywhere on the globe, said Iris Bombelyn, vice president for MUOS at Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif. A similar model of allied participation has enabled the U.S. Air Force to expand the size of its Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellite constellation.

Lockheed Martin has completed assembly of the fifth and final satellite under its current multibillion-dollar MUOS contract, Bombelyn said in a Feb. 6 interview. That satellite is now involved in system testing.

The Navy does not have money budgeted for additional spacecraft, Bombelyn said. A sixth, allied-funded satellite would keep the supply and production lines from going cold before the Navy decides to buy another block of satellites, assuming that is the service’s intent.

The MUOS program encompasses four on-orbit satellites, one on-orbit spare and four ground stations. Two MUOS satellites have been launched to date, with the third  tentatively slated to fly as early as January 2015.

The program has been expected to achieve full operational capability in 2017 and the satellites are expected to provide service through 2025.

Bombelyn said that when the Navy reserved the UHF-band frequency for the first block of MUOS satellites, it also reserved a second block of frequency for a follow-on MUOS program consisting of another five satellites.

The MUOS program already has an international component. The Australian Defence Force owns a UHF payload hosted aboard the commercial Intelsat IS-22 satellite, launched in 2012. Australia has agreed to provide the U.S. Navy with access to that payload in return for access to the legacy payloads within the MUOS constellation.

But what Lockheed Martin is looking for appears to bear closer resemblance to the deals the U.S. Air Force has struck on the WGS system. For example, Australia invested approximately $700 million in the WGS-6 satellite and in exchange gets access to the full constellation, which ultimately will consist of 10 satellites. Similarly, WGS-9 is being built thanks to an investment by a five-country consortium of Denmark, Canada, New Zealand, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Because of MUOS’s recently demonstrated capability to maintain telephone links with an aircraft flying over the North Pole and the increased focus on the Arctic region, Canada is especially interested in the program, Bombelyn said. Lockheed Martin recently said it responded with a solution based in part on MUOS to a Canadian government request for information on its planned Polar Communications and Weather system, which would be optimized to serve the high Arctic regions that typically are hard to reach with geostationary orbiting satellites.

“The appetite is there,” Bombelyn said. “It’s a matter of assuring they will have access to the system.”

Any effort to bring in allied investors in the MUOS program likely would be led by the Defense Department and the system’s owner, the U.S. Navy. Steve Davis, a spokesman for the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, did not reply to a request for comment before presstime.

Meanwhile, Lockheed is also taking steps to assure its supply chain that future satellites in the constellation are still a possibility. Among the key MUOS component suppliers are Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, which provides a legacy payload and digital signal channelizer, and Harris Corp., which builds the satellites’ unfurlable mesh antennas.

Internationalizing MUOS would be consistent with the U.S. space policy, which calls for leveraging partnerships wherever possible.

Doug Loverro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said in a Feb. 13 email that an international partnership on MUOS is “in short, a good deal for all.”

Such partnerships help the Defense Department “increase the resiliency of our capabilities, shape the international environment, strengthen deterrence, improve our operational posture, and increase the flexibility and inter-operability of allied forces,” he said. “It also provides needed boosts to our space industrial base between US acquisition cycles.”