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

The Family of Advanced Beyond Line-of-Sight Terminals program, commonly known as FAB-T, has been no exception.

The program, designed to enable the U.S. president and top military leaders to communicate via the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites during a nuclear war, has been in development for more than 10 years and cost $4.6 billion to date. Boeing initially was selected as prime contractor, but the Air Force funded a competing development effort by Raytheon starting in 2012 after Boeing ran into cost growth and delays.

Scott Whatmough was tasked with delivering what turned out to be Raytheon’s winning bid for the work. In June, Raytheon bested Boeing for a $298 million contract to finish developing the FAB-T system and deliver 84 ground and airborne command post terminals.

The bidders also were asked to price out an option to develop a variant of the terminals for installation on strategic bombers, but it now appears unlikely that the Air Force will exercise that option in the near-future.

Raytheon’s experience on programs including the Navy Multiband Terminal (NMT) and other AEHF terminals helped it win the FAB-T contract, Whatmough said. The company also intends to continue leveraging this work as it executes on the FAB-T contract. Whatmough started at Raytheon in 1986 as an engineer on the Milstar program, the predecessor to AEHF, and previously served as vice president of Raytheon’s former Network Centric Systems division. He spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Mike Gruss.

Why does the Defense Department need FAB-T and how much of that relates to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001?

If you go all the way back to the 1980s, Milstar was the flagship Air Force program and it provides the link from the command post to the bomber fleet to the president. It really is the secure link for command and control. That’s always been the core mission of the FAB-T and its prior extremely high frequency program. What you hear about 9/11 is that in the event of a crisis, how do you assure constant presidential communication? FAB-T did not get born out of 9/11. FAB-T is a way of providing assured communications during a crisis.

Raytheon lost to Boeing in the original FAB-T competition in 2002. What lessons from that experience helped you win in 2014?

We were just more mature. When we first started the pursuit of the alternate program, we had a really good technical baseline. Our software was 80 percent done. The hardware was working in the NMT system and the MMPU [Minuteman Minimum Essential Emergency Communications Network Program Upgrade] system, but it wasn’t in the FAB-T form-factor. When you’re going off and building a proposal, both technical and cost, it’s based on the best numbers you have at the time and that’s what we submitted the first time around. Anytime you’ve got unknowns, there’s a certain amount of conservatism and you can drive that out with knowledge.

So that final bid was significantly less than the original bid?

It was lower. We were cognizant we weren’t out there doing this on our own. By the same token, you have to be able to execute the program when you win.

What hurdles remain on the FAB-T development?

We are about to start flight-testing with our terminals on a test aircraft and interfacing with one of our ground terminals. We are in the middle of our design-verification testing and that will run for several months. Once Milestone C is approved, that allows the Air Force to place their first low-rate production order from this down-select decision that was made June 2. I don’t want to put the Air Force in a bind by picking a date but it’s going to be late this year, early next year. When the Air Force is confident that they’re ready to make [a low-rate production] award, they’ll do that.

How many terminals are you preparing for?

It’s likely the first buy will be on the order of 10 terminals. It won’t be significantly higher; it won’t be significantly lower. The next year? The same number of terminals, maybe a few more. And then you get into full-rate production and that will most likely be a three-year buy to fill out the total of 84 terminals.

What are you doing to keep costs down?

There’s a big debate on where the cost of the terminal starts and stops. It’s expensive, but I don’t think it’s as expensive as historically folks thought it would be. The Air Force has done a nice job driving the cost down. I’ve got the good fortune of having a hot production line and I’m able to do my pricing based on that. We’ve already delivered 500 AEHF terminals to all the services. When we start the production of a new product, it’s not really new; it’s derivative of a prior product.

Is FAB-T still a multibillion-dollar program?

It depends on how many they deploy. Obviously I’d like to see them put one in every aircraft but that’s not going to happen. The dollar value is really more driven by the number of terminals deployed.

What are the decision points the Air Force faces before it makes an order for FAB-T terminals for bombers? 

I don’t think we’ll see anything imminent. The Air Force is going to do their analysis and then they’ll come out and prioritize their needs. The next question is how will they buy it. I have no idea. You could see this thing going many directions from a new competition to individual acquisitions based on platform-specific requirements. It’s just too early to tell.

Could it be a contract modification?

Anything’s possible. I’ve gotten no indication that’s the case. There are no provisions in the contract now. It’s command-post only. As the Air Force does their analysis on the mission, the timing, they’ll decide the best way to do it. Timing will be critical. If they wait many, many years, we’ll be done delivering FAB-Ts. That contract will be closed. We’ll probably have to do something different.

How long is the window, three to five years?

I’d be speculating but that seems like the right window.

What’s driving the need to get the command post terminals in place?

Milstar is an aging terminal. It still works, fortunately. But at some point, these things need to be modified. That terminal was designed in an era where the best data rate you could get in this highly secure environment was pretty low. It was on the order of a dial-up modem. And here we are now with a FAB-T that will do 8-9 megabits per second, so five times a T1 line.

Are there other advantages to FAB-T over the Milstar terminals?

Primarily it’s the bandwidth. It’s also smaller size, weight and power, just by virtue of Moore’s law. This is by far the most complex communications system I’m aware of. When somebody embarks on trying to develop one of these terminals, it’s a long, arduous process, very complex, very difficult.

But how is FAB-T different from scores of other technical challenges?

The stuff the government asks industry to do is hard. They wouldn’t be paying defense contractors to do that if it were easy; they’d be buying commercial off-the-shelf gear. The AEHF system is a highly coupled one where the hardware and the software are integrated. That’s a little different from some radio communications where you can have a modular approach where the hardware will run a bunch of different waveforms. That’s not the case with the AEHF system. It’s an integrated solution. By virtue of the requirements to be a low-probability-of-intercept, low-probability-of-detect, anti-jam system, it makes it a very complicated waveform. The way the signal is treated is much more complex than you’d see in a traditional unprotected satellite link for Wideband Global Satcom or line-of-sight radios.

Is the Defense Department quicker these days to bring on an alternate contractor when a program struggles?

It’s case by case. If the FAB-T development had gone better, that wouldn’t have happened. It really comes down to the amount of risk they can tolerate. The lion’s share of acquisition won’t go down that path.

What other kinds of work is Raytheon doing with protected waveforms?

We’ve got a modem that we’ve demonstrated to a variety of folks, the different services. We’ve got a waveform that’s up and running. We’re continuing to work on that both on Air Force funds and Raytheon funds.

What could the waveform provide in the future?

That waveform will not be as complex as the AEHF waveform. Therefore, you’ll see terminal costs going down. At the end of the day, the satellite will be less complex, driving the satellite cost down also. It will not be a nuclear command-and-control terminal, which means it can be deployed in a lot of places where these AEHF terminals cannot be deployed. That’s really been one of the drivers: to allow more widespread use of protected satcom. That to me is the benefit of the protected tactical waveform.

What’s the next step?

Near-term, we can provide protection to existing satellite terminals using existing transponded satellites such asWGS. There are things you can do at the terminal side to provide a level of protection that doesn’t exist right now — some frequency hopping and some things you can do with this new waveform that will still run over that satellite. Long term, the waveform may provide a foundation for new satellite systems enabling even  more protection.

What kind of protection are we talking about?

Somewhere between no protection and AEHF.

Air Force leaders have said it’s better to have something than nothing. Is that also a good business plan?

It is. In the AEHF world, there are a very limited number of users for protected satcom. Because of the nature of the mission, it can only be used by certain services and partners. Once you get away from the nuclear command-and-control mission and you’ve got a more protected satcom capability, now you’ve got the ability to have coalition partners to have the same capability,. Lower cost, but more terminals. It’s not run-of-the-mill stuff. It still requires a lot of expertise.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.