WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force and the contractors competing to build a constellation of laser-linked communications spacecraft are taking steps to dodge the technical problems that have inflated the cost of most of the military’s other satellite efforts, according to service and industry officials.
The Air Force included more risk reduction work in the early phases of the Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) Communications program than has been performed on most space programs in the past, said Christine Anderson, director of the Military Satellite Communications Joint Program Office at Los Angeles Air Force Base, during a Feb. 11 telephone interview.
This has required high budget requests over the past several years, making the program an attractive target for cost-cutters on Capitol Hill, said John Fuller, Boeing vice president of Air Force Space Systems in Huntington Beach, Calif.
However, spending money early on risk reduction is the most prudent approach because it might help avoid serious problems that could crop up later in the development process, Fuller said during a Feb. 1 telephone interview.
This approach can be traced back in part to the recommendations from a study led by former top Lockheed Martin executive Thomas Young in 2003, Fuller said.
The “Report of the Defense Science Board /Air Force Scientific Advisory Board Joint Task on Acquisition of National Security Space Programs” helped senior Pentagon and industry officials better understand the differences in the development of satellites compared to other military systems, Fuller said. The report served as the basis for the Air Force’s 2003 update of its space acquisition policy.
Young’s panel pointed out that satellites are bought in small quantities, with the bulk of the cost taking place in their development phase, Fuller said. Most other military systems are bought in large quantities with the bulk of their expens e coming in their production, he said. This gives the Air Force and its contractors more time to fix problems with non-satellite systems before most units are fielded.
The Air Force’s investment in T-Sat is scheduled to ramp up sharply over the next several years as it plans to choose between teams led by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Sunnyvale, Calif., and Boeing Integrated Defense Systems of St. Louis, to build the new satellites in late 2006.
The Air Force plans to spend $467 million on the program in 2005, and is requesting $836 million for 2006. The service plans to request $1.1 billion for T-Sat in 2007, $1.9 billion in 2008, $2.4 billion in 2009, $2.5 billion in 2010, and $1.9 billion in 2011, according to an Air Force budget chart.
The Air Force saw its 2004 budget request of $775 million for the program slashed by Congress. Critics of the program pointed to the technical problems and cost growth on the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (EHF) communications satellites, which T-Sat is expected to replace beginning in 2013, as evidence that work needs to slow down on the more advanced constellation.
But Troy Meink, the Air Force’s T-Sat program manager, said that the Air Force is already taking a slower, more conservative path with the T-Sat effort than it typically has on past efforts like Advanced EHF or the current Milstar satellite communications constellation.
Len Kwiatkowski, vice president and general manager of military space programs for Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Sunnyvale, Calif., said that lessons from the Advanced EHF program can help the Air Force avoid the same problems on T-Sat.
Advanced EHF’s primary difficulties have stemmed from delays in encryption equipment development by the National Security Agency. The encryption devices did not receive as much attention in the early phases of the Advanced EHF program as the other aspects of the satellites and ground systems, which should be taken into consideration on the T-Sat effort, Kwiatkowski said.
“That’s a massive lesson learned that should not be repeated again,” Kwiatkowski said in a Feb. 17 telephone interview.
Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman Corp., its main teammate on T-Sat, also are able to build on their past experience developing hardware that has worked well on Milstar and appears to be in good shape for the Advanced EHF satellites, in developing the T-Sat constellation, Kwiatkowski said.
The Air Force is working closely with Boeing and Lockheed Martin to ensure that requirements are clearly defined, understood and ultimately met when the contractors develop system designs, Meink said during a joint telephone interview with Anderson Feb. 11. The primary focus thus far has been on the satellites’ laser hardware, he said.
“I think the schedule is very doable,” Meink said. “We’ve spent more time in the upfront phases than on any program that I’m familiar with.”
The Air Force and its contractors have often rushed through requirements for development and design work in the past, leading to an unstable foundation for programs, Anderson said.
“We’re spending a lot of time to get it right,” Anderson said.