The U.S. Air Force decision to scale-back the planned capabilities of its first two Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) Communications System spacecraft was designed to allay Capitol Hill’s longstanding concerns with the program while keeping it close to the schedule it was on last year, according to Pentagon officials.

The result, advocates of the new plan say, will be improved communications for U.S. forces starting around middle of next decade, with T-Sat’s full-blown advertised capabilities coming on line thereafter. The first of a total of five planned T-Sat satellites is now slated to launch in late 2014 rather than last year’s target date of early 2013.

Still, the Air Force’s 2007 T-Sat funding request, at $867 million, is more than double this year’s funding level of $429 million, and thus will draw very close scrutiny from lawmakers, congressional staffers said. One source of concern is the service’s ability to accelerate T-Sat development work so quickly, the aides said.

Congress has significantly reduced the Air Force’s T-Sat budget requests over the past several years, citing concern that the service is moving out too quickly on the high-tech program. As envisioned, the T-Sat satellites would be equipped with laser-optic and Internet-router technologies to provide more bandwidth overall and better connectivity for forces on the move.

While the capabilities of the first T-Sat satellites will not be ideal under the revised plan, they will remain a key enabler of network-centric military operations in the next decade, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, director of the Military Satellite Communications Joint Program Office at the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.

“You always need to balance user requirements,” Pawlikowski said in a Feb. 6 telephone interview. The incremental-improvement strategy for T-Sat was vetted thoroughly with the user community, which expressed its support so long as the full capabilities ultimately are deployed in the constellation, she said.

Pawlikowski also noted that the T-Sat plan was endorsed in the latest Quadrennial Defense Review, the Defense Department planning document released Feb. 3 that will guide budget priorities for the next several years.

Stuart Linsky , vice president for satellite communications at Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp., said the initial T-Sat satellites likely will be at least five times as capable as the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (EHF) satellites, which are expected to launch beginning in 2008. Northrop Grumman is responsible for designing the laser communications payload as part of the Lockheed Martin team in the T-Sat competition. Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., also is the prime contractor on the Advanced EHF program, with Northrop Grumman as the payload subcontractor.

A team led by Chicago-based Boeing Co. also is competing for the multibillion-dollar T-Sat prime contract, which under the latest plan is slated for award in 2008.

Speaking on a panel at the Satellite 2006 conference here, Linsky said the capability of the initial T-Sat satellites likely will be commensurate with the number of compatible terminals expected to be deployed in the field by the middle of next decade. The more capable T-Sat spacecraft will be in orbit once the terminals are deployed in much larger quantities, and the initial spacecraft will be repositioned to cover lower-priority areas, he said.

A Pentagon source who represents the T-Sat user community called the incremental, or spiral-development, approach the “the best we could do to keep the program” given congressional opposition to the previous strategy and the technical challenges posed by laser-linked satellites.

“We would have preferred the more robust T-Sat, but it wouldn’t have worked and Congress would have forced the purchase of another Advanced EHF,” the source said. The initial T-Sat satellites are still expected to greatly expand access to communications links for troops on the move, a group that today is badly underserved , the source said.

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a think tank here, said the Air Force is wise to take a more conservative pace with the T-Sat program given the technical problems that have plagued the rest of the service’s space acquisition portfolio.

“All of the losses [in capability] that result from doing a spiral are theoretical, and all of the gains are tangible,” Thompson said . “The supposed losses are based on an ideal conception of the world that seldom is encountered.”

Congressional aides said the new T-Sat plan does not appear to directly follow language in the 2006 Defense Appropriations Act instructing the service to defer acquisition plans and focus on developing key enabling technologies . But they also credited the Air Force with making strides in the technology in recent months, and suggested that if the service continues to make progress the program could be ready to move into the acquisition phase.

Steve Tatum, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, said in a written statement that the T-Sat program is a high priority for the company.

“Working closely with our customer, our team has successfully demonstrated our technological readiness essential for getting T-Sat off to a successful start, including major risk reduction milestones for both space-based laser communication and next-generation processor-router capabilities,” Tatum said. “We look forward to continuing our progress in the risk reduction, system definition phase and stand ready to support the customer’s requirements for the next development phase of the program.”

Tatum deferred to the Air Force for comment on the new strategy for the program

Joe Tedino, a Boeing spokesman, said that company believes the new strategy is an effective means of reducing risk on the program while ensuring that the system can meet the military’s needs.