COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Having completed construction and testing of the first of a new generation of super-secure military communications satellites, Lockheed Martin is preparing to submit a proposal to build the fourth spacecraft in the series, with an option for a fifth, a company official said.
Kevin M. Bilger, vice president and general manager of global communications systems at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co., said there was a four-year break in production between the third Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite and the fourth. As a result, there will be only about 70 percent parts commonality between the two satellites due to obsolescence and the closure of component production lines.
Bilger recently took over management of Lockheed Martin’s reorganized communications satellite business, a move that combined the company’s government and commercial programs. Marshall Byrd, who previously headed Newtown, Pa.-based Lockheed Martin Commercial Space Systems, is retiring this summer, company officials said.
Lockheed Martin’s $6 billion AEHF contract covers the first three satellites plus long-lead components for the fourth. The reason for the gap in production — such gaps typically create inefficiencies that drive up the cost of programs — was that the U.S. Air Force previously intended to buy just three AEHF satellites before moving on to the far more ambitious Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) communications system, but that program was canceled last year.
In an interview here, Bilger said Lockheed Martin expects to be under contract for the fourth AEHF spacecraft sometime this summer. The Air Force intends to buy at least six AEHF satellites, and Bilger said Lockheed Martin could save the government money by ordering the components for the fifth and sixth satellites simultaneously, but currently that is not part of the plan.
Lockheed Martin also is studying upgrades to the AEHF satellite platform based on the research and development work done under the T-Sat program, Bilger said. The upgrades would support applications including communications for troops on the move, and could be incorporated beginning with the fifth satellite, he said.
Meanwhile, the first AEHF craft is in Sunnyvale awaiting shipment to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida for a scheduled July 30 launch aboard an Atlas 5 rocket. The second satellite is undergoing final testing, Bilger said, while the third is in environmental testing. The AEHF satellites are planned for launch at eight-month intervals, he said.
Lockheed Martin also is prime contractor on the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System, a constellation of four geostationary satellites that will provide communications to ships at sea and troops operating beneath vegetation canopies and other hard-to-reach areas. Bilger said Lockheed Martin expects the Navy to exercise an option late this year or early next year for a fifth satellite, which would serve as a spare.
On the commercial side, Bilger said Lockheed Martin over the past five years has averaged about two communications satellites per year and hopes to increase that to up to four over the next five years. Although the major satellite operators are winding down their recent fleet-recapitalization cycles, Bilger said Lockheed Martin’s relationships with current and past customers, coupled with recent White House statements on export-control reform, bode well for the company’s commercial business.
Lockheed Martin also is competing to build a next-generation constellation of 66 low-orbiting satellites for Iridium Communications of McLean, Va. Lockheed Martin built the platforms for the current Iridium satellites in Nashua, N.H., and is eyeing potential manufacturing locations in the southwestern United States should it beat out Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy for the contract to build the Iridium Next system, Bilger said. He added that the company is looking at locations in Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico and that incentives provided by these states would be a factor in the company’s selection.