Air Force Studies Options for Deploying T-Sat Capabilities

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has been directed to examine whether to fit existing space assets with advanced systems that had been planned for the defunct Transformation Satellite, or T-Sat, communications system under a May 22 acquisition decision memorandum issued by senior Pentagon officials.

Josh Hartman, senior adviser to the Pentagon acquisition executive, says certain T-Sat subsystems may be installed on future models of existing satellites, such as the Wideband Global Satcom and Advanced Extremely High Frequency craft.

But, he said in a May 28 interview, officials also will look at whether the military should also build “free flyers,” meaning “much smaller and much simpler” satellites that would be launched with just a single capability envisioned for T-Sat.

Pentagon officials have talked of their desire to harness key T-Sat capabilities — for example, systems for handling advanced airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data and on-themove communications — and get them into orbit ever since Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced his intention to sack the multibillion-dollar satellite effort April 6. The acquisition memorandum, which is the first step in that process, directs the Air Force to conduct an analysis of alternatives over roughly the next two months.

Marco Caceres, a space analyst for the Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group, said the effort to save the technologies intended for T-Sat matches “what the Pentagon always does – it always figures out another way to get what it wants.” Defense officials “aren’t just going to throw away the technologies,” Caceres said.

“There will be an effort to reintroduce T-Sat,” Caceres said. “It’ll be called something else. The technologies might be on different platforms. But at the end of the day, they will get the same thing.”

Senior defense officials determined T-Sat had become too costly and technically troubled to keep it going. That was supported by the decision to scrap the vehicle portion of the U.S. Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) program.

“There was a connection to FCS,” Hartman said. Once Gates opted to nix those vehicles, “the core of the enterprise said T-Sat was not needed.”

But Hartman was quick to point out that many of the battlefield tools T-Sat would have delivered are still needed – just not on a single platform. “The requirement for those things hasn’t gone anywhere,” he said.

Many of the T-Sat technologies are ready for prime time, even if the entire integrated package was not, Hartman said.

“When you look at the T-Sat technologies, they have matured to TRL-6,” he noted.

The Pentagon uses a scale called the “technology readiness level” index, TRL for short, to judge how far down the development chain a technology has moved. TRL6 typically means a prototype version of a system has shown it works in an environment comparable to its intended operational setting.

The analysis of alternatives will examine which T-Sat capabilities can be integrated with the Wideband Global and Advanced Extremely High Frequency platforms – and which would be candidates for a separate satellite platform. Hartman said the Wideband Global craft are well-suited to inherit systems related to advanced airborne reconnaissance data and on-the-move communications. He added that both capabilities also are candidates for the possible smaller, simpler orbiters. For the on-the-move systems, “that’s only if [troops] don’t need protected” links. The likely costs of upgrading existing satellites or building the alternative platforms is not yet known, and will be addressed in the study, Hartman said.

Caceres said there will be many technical challenges to incorporating T-Sat subsystems on existing satellite designs.

“Things interfere with one another, for one,” Caceres said.

Caceres said using simpler designs than many of the complex assets built in recent years might prove “very cost effective.” To reduce satellite program costs, the Defense Department recently said it will no longer seek costly “one-size-fits-all” satellites like T-Sat.

Instead, the Pentagon plans to move toward less complex, shorterlived systems geared for specific missions and regions. That should lead to lower price tags and more orders for industry, and allow the military to find ways to better use rapidly advancing technologies, according to defense officials.