Profile: Agility on the Ground

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  Space News Business

Profile: Agility on the Ground

By WARREN FERSTER
Space News Editor
posted: 14 July 2009
11:45 am ET





John Weidman

Vice President and General Manager of National Systems,

General Dynamics C4 Systems

Every aerospace and defense contractor lives with one eye focused on the programs it has on its plate and the other on potential future sources of revenue. With U.S. defense budgets likely to flatten or decline in the coming years, the importance of each potential plum contract looms that much larger.

For General Dynamics C4 Systems, the first order of business is continuing to execute on its largest program, the ground segment for the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), a satellite communications system slated to begin launching in 2011. MUOS is in its peak spending years, with the ground segment – consisting of command and control gateway stations at four sites around the world and communications software – expected to be in place by 2012.

John Weidman, who runs General Dynamics C4 Systems’ national systems business, is also paying close attention to the next plum on the horizon, the Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS) program, an overhaul of the ground-based portion of NASA’s space communications network. General Dynamics has a 30-year legacy of relevant experience as the ground segment contractor for NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS).

General Dynamics was part of the Boeing team that in 2007 won the contract to build a new generation of TDRSS satellites and currently is upgrading the TDRSS ground infrastructure at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., to accommodate the additional craft. The company also supports the Naval Satellite Operations Center at Point Mugu, Calif., and hopes to play a part in the planned modernization of the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

An engineer by training, Weidman was with Motorola’s government electronics business when it was gobbled up by General Dynamics as part of an acquisition spree that made it a major player in the space and information technology business. He spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster.

What proportion of your business is space related?

Half my business is satellite ground infrastructure based and half of it is more homeland security and large wireless network infrastructure, because there’s a lot of commonalities in those two technologies.

The last several years, the satellite side has grown faster, but it’s been predominantly driven by one large program.

That would be MUOS?

Yes. Approximately 90 percent of the requirements are on the ground so it’s a very complex program for which we’re doing the equivalent development of a million lines of code.

There’s really two major pieces we’re doing; we have responsibility for the entire ground segment but we also have responsibility for the user terminal – not the terminal itself but basically a waveform that goes in the Joint Tactical Radio System.

The military has had problems over the years keeping its satellite and terminal programs in sync. Has that been an issue on MUOS?

I will tell you that originally in the MUOS program there was a disconnect between the right hand and the left hand of the government but that gap has been closed; it’s fully synchronized now. It took a little energy, but I think we’re all on the same page, we have schedules that line up and most everybody’s happy.

The Navy recently disclosed an 11-month delay in the launch of the first MUOS satellite. Has that affected your work at all?

It really hasn’t. I think some of those things are continually in play, dependent on the budgeting process but so far we’ve held to our original schedule. One interesting thing is we are going through a significant change proposal right now which adds red side processing on the ground element.

What is red side processing?

Red side processing has to do with adding all the appropriate encryption and controls in conjunction with National Security Agency guidelines. MUOS originally was envisioned as a black pipe, if you will, but in reality you need encryption of the data going through it so there needs to be some intelligence built into the network to help do that encryption. It’s a change proposal on the ground to effectively help get encrypted data through it. It’s just to add more layers of protection.

How will this affect the program’s schedule and cost?

If you look at our original schedule versus what we have with this new red side processing work, it has slipped the ground schedule out six to nine months – but it’s still compatible with the overall program needs.

Can you describe the MUOS ground station architecture?

The first one is Wahiawa, Hawaii, on the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station base – we had a site dedication in March – and then we have another site in Virginia. Then there’s one on Sicily and one at Geraldton, Australia. They’re approximately each a quarter of the way around the globe and any single site can see two satellites, so you have built-in redundancy; there are three large antennas at each site so they can each point at two different birds and then you have one spare.

What we did on MUOS was we leveraged commercial technology from Ericsson because obviously in the cellular world they have spent billions of dollars in research and development over the years. Think of it as building a cellular network with the towers in the sky, going through the satellites.

What’s the status of the ground stations?

Wahiawa is first, and it’s pretty much done. I can’t tell you exactly what’s next. It’s evolving because with Sicily and Australia we have been working through all the foreign government approvals and agreements and everything has kind of made these things move with respect to how receptive the allies are to doing things in our timeframe. But they are moving forward. I know we do have things on a ship as we speak headed to Australia for installation there. And then after Australia I’m not sure if it’s going to be Northwest Virginia or Sicily, but they’re kind of neck and neck.

Is a large portion of your space-related work for classified programs?

We do some work in the classified systems as well. I would say it’s a minority of the business.

I’m a little surprised to hear that given your expertise in encryption technology.

With respect to the encryptors themselves, yes, we are a player in that, and have a sizable piece of that market, but from my perspective, those are kind of product element plays that we sell as opposed to the whole end-to-end network.

What’s the scale of the SGSS program?

I hate to put a dollar amount on it, but it’s certainly in the hundreds of millions.

The request for proposals is supposed to come out this fall. I think they’re talking late August, early September, which would mean an award the first half of next year.

Does General Dynamics’ role as the longtime TDRSS ground segment contractor give it an edge in the SGSS competition?

Legacy is important but probably shouldn’t be overemphasized. I think NASA is looking for a new architecture, state of the art, that’s open, not proprietary. Leverage commercial technology as much as you can. And frankly that’s something General Dynamics really excels at. On MUOS, we leveraged commercial technology. So it’s really taking a satellite ground network and turning it into an Internet Protocol network that’s very flexible, can be expanded in the future, it’s easy to maintain, you have backup capability so that if a site goes down you can remotely have access to data coming in on other sites, so you have continuity of operations.

Will your experience with encryption technology come into play given that the national security community is a major user of TDRSS?

I think certainly it will be a strength of ours. Whether or not it’s ultimately a win key, I don’t know, because they define their security algorithms that they want you to play in and the government tries to make it a level playing field as best they can, so if there’s some crypto gear that you need to have, they’re going to make it available to everybody.

Would winning the SGSS contract open up other opportunities such as the Deep Space Network upgrade NASA has talked about?

Absolutely.
I think winning SGSS is a key to winning a lot of that follow-on business. You just continue to get more credentials, credibility, knowledge of the nuances of the new network that you’re building, so obviously it will be one of many factors when they select additional upgrades. There’s no guarantee – you have to execute on all this stuff – but certainly it will be a leg up.