Boeing Touts Progress on FAB-T as Air Force Studies Alternatives
WASHINGTON — Boeing Defense, Space and Security in the next month expects to complete hardware qualification for a new family of protected satellite communications terminals, while its U.S. Air Force customer is soon expected to issue a solicitation that could hand over production of the terminals to another company.
St. Louis-based Boeing has struggled with the development of the Family of Advanced Beyond-line-of-sight Terminals (FAB-T), but recent ground and flight testing has been successful and the company is on track to complete the development program in September 2013, John Lunardi, Boeing’s FAB-T vice president and program director, said during a July 18 media briefing. The company in recent months has worked to reduce production costs for the terminals, though Lunardi declined to say by how much.
The FAB-T terminals are being designed to transmit and receive voice, data, imagery and video over the Air Force’s new Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) secure communications satellites and the legacy Milstar constellation. They will be installed at ground sites and carried on the B-2, B-52, RC-135, E-6 and E-4 aircraft.
Boeing has received contracts totaling more than $1 billion for the program since 2002, and terminals were expected to begin production in 2010. Several of the program’s key technologies are not yet mature, and a decision to enter low-rate initial production is now expected in late 2012, according to a March report from the Government Accountability Office. The development phase will cost another $220.2 million to complete, and procurement of 209 terminals is projected to cost $2.1 billion, the report said. Air Force spokeswoman Tina Greer was unable to provide an updated cost estimate or production schedule by press time.
Boeing has built more than 700 hardware units for the program, and hardware qualification testing is more than 90 percent complete, Lunardi said. This hardware will be used for flight testing as well as in Boeing’s systems integration lab, where the company will be working on 23 concurrent test strings, he said. In April the company flew a nonproduction level FAB-T terminal aboard a Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft and successfully demonstrated low data rate transmissions over a Milstar satellite, Lunardi said.
Boeing’s FAB-T terminals are being developed to operate with the so-called extended data rate waveform enabled by the AEHF satellites, the first of which was launched in August 2010 but has not yet reached its final geosynchronous position. Boeing has completed more than 50 percent of the extended data rate test cases using an AEHF satellite simulator on the ground, Lunardi said.
The company in late 2010 began work to trim FAB-T production costs and believes it can significantly reduce costs in several areas, Lunardi said. Specifically he noted 35 percent savings that could be achieved in the labor costs associated with hardware manufacturing and acceptance testing. He declined to comment on total production costs.
Meanwhile, the Air Force for more than a year has been pondering its production strategy for FAB-T. The service in April issued a draft request for proposals, and in the next few months is expected to issue a final solicitation for potential alternative sources, government and industry sources said. The Air Force requested $238.7 million for the FAB-T program in 2012; a defense spending bill passed in June by the House Appropriations Committee would cut $100 million from the request and use $50 million of that amount to fund development of FAB-T alternatives.
One potential alternative provider for FAB-T is Raytheon Network Centric Systems of Marlborough, Mass., which is the prime contractor for three other AEHF terminal programs. Earlier this year Raytheon delivered to the Army the first of 364 Humvee-mounted terminals procured under the Secure Mobile Anti-Jam Reliable Tactical Terminal program, company spokesman David Desilets said July 22. Raytheon is also entering production of the ship-based Navy Multiband Terminals and soon hopes to begin production of terminals that will be installed at ICBM sites, Scott Whatmough, the company’s vice president of integrated communications systems, said in a July 21 interview.
The engineering challenges associated with building aircraft-mounted satellite communications terminals are different from those associated with ground- and sea-based terminals, Whatmough said. But Raytheon has been building extremely high frequency terminals for nearly 30 years and is well positioned to build FAB-T terminals for the Air Force should it so desire, he said.