Installation of FAB-T Gear on Bombers Deferred Indefinitely

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force will equip its B-2 strategic bomber aircraft with secure one-way radio links to allow them to perform their mission without satellite terminals whose development has been deferred indefinitely as a near-term cost-saving measure, the service said in a report to lawmakers.

As part of a restructuring of its troubled Family of Beyond Line-of-Sight Terminal (FAB-T) program, the Air Force has deferred plans to equip its B-2 and B-52 bombers, and RC-135 electronic surveillance aircraft, with satellite-based communications capability. The FAB-T program initially will focus on air- and ground-based terminals and related equipment that will enable the U.S. president to communicate with the senior national leadership and strategic forces during a nuclear war.

In lieu of the FAB-T terminals, the Air Force will equip its B-2 stealth bombers with updated very low frequency (VLF) radio links that will enable the aircraft to receive presidential commands but not report back to authorities, according to the report, prepared by the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force. Ordered up in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (PL 112-81), the report, “Extremely High Frequency Terminals,” said the VLF terminals will provide “the required assured, unbroken, survivable, secure and enduring connectivity needed for” nuclear command and control.

“Recent testing of VLF reception on the B-2 shows this is feasible, significantly less costly, and because of an internal antenna, has no adverse impact on the B-2’s radar signature,” said the report, delivered in September to the congressional committees that oversee the Department of Defense. B-2 bombers feature so-called stealth technology that allows them to evade detection by radar and thus operate in enemy airspace.

FAB-T is a family of nuclear-hardened terminals designed to work with the Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency and legacy Milstar satellite systems, which are designed to provide secure communications links to strategic and tactical forces under all conditions, including nuclear war. Boeing Network and Space Systems, Arlington, Va., won the FAB-T prime contract in 2002 but struggled on the program, whose projected costs had risen from $3.1 billion in 2006 to $4.6 billion as of February, according to the Air Force.

Rather than terminate Boeing’s contract, something it threatened to do early this year, the Air Force converted it to a fixed-price arrangement focused initially on the presidential conferencing/command post capability. As a hedge, the service also solicited bids from alternate suppliers, and in September awarded a $70 million development contract to Raytheon Network Centric Systems of McKinney, Texas, also focused the presidential conferencing/command post capability.

Deferring the bomber- and RC-135-based FAB-T terminals and related development activities is expected to save $689 million in 2013 and $1.33 billion over the next five years, the report said. It did not provide a cost estimate for equipping the aircraft with VLF terminals, which will not be able to report back to command authorities due to antenna limitations.

The Air Force will develop plans to acquire bomber-based FAB-T terminals “if funding becomes available,” the report said. Developing the antennas required for the B-2 to host extremely high frequency terminals is challenging and likely will take five years, including testing, the report said. “Any program restart must be integrated into the B-2 flight test and modernization schedule,” the report said.

Delivery of the initial FAB-T terminals for presidential conferencing is expected to begin in 2015 and be completed four to five years later, the report said.

The VLF radios, meanwhile, will provide a “very high probability” of providing proper reception over the entire Northern Hemisphere from top military officials, according to the report. To reach far-flung strategic bombers, the VLF signals will be relayed from command authorities via aircraft-based transmitters, the report said.

Richard Esposito, a Boeing spokesman, said via email Nov. 8 that all of the issues associated with the company’s development of FAB-T have been addressed.

“The need to address interim solutions is driven by the timing of funding for production terminals,” he said. “Boeing is working with the government to offer options for providing FAB-T terminals for the B-2 and B-52 bombers and the RC-135 aircraft as fast as the funding can be made available to support this need.”