WASHINGTON — The Senate Appropriations Committee questioned why it will take the U.S. Space Force 12 years to acquire new jam-resistant communications satellites to replace the existing Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) spacecraft made by Lockheed Martin.

The program in question is the Evolved Strategic Satellite Communications system known as ESS. The Space and Missile Systems Center awarded three contracts this year to develop prototypes with the goal to deploy a new system by 2032. ESS satellites, like AEHF, must be nuclear-survivable and provide global communications for high-priority military operations and national command authorities.

“The committee is concerned that the ESS system may be needed sooner,” Senate appropriators said in an “explanatory statement” accompanying their $696 billion markup of the Defense Department spending bill for Fiscal Year 2021 released Nov. 10 

“This system must be available for transition from the Advanced Extremely High Frequency program in the next decade,” said the statement. 

The committee asks the Air Force to look into the “potential for a strategic communications gap beginning in 2030.”

The Defense Department’s 2021 budget request includes $71.4 million for the ESS program, which the Senate Appropriations Committee approved. 

Three companies are developing competing ESS prototype payloads under contracts from the Space and Missile Systems Center. 

On Nov. 9 Lockheed Martin Space received a $258 million contract. Boeing and Northrop Grumman each got $298 million contracts Oct. 1 and Sept. 16, respectively.

All three prototypes must be completed by 2025. 

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...