AEHF satellite
The terminals are designed to connect nuclear bomber bases to the AEHF communications satellites (above) as well as the legacy Milstar satellites. Credit: U.S. Air Force

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force in late July conferred “initial operational capability” (IOC) status on its constellation of three highly secure communications satellites, a declaration that comes five years after the launch of the first and means the system can now be used more broadly.

U.S. Strategic Command will now push more of the service’s protected bandwidth toward the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites and away from the five-satellite legacy Milstar constellation, Col. Stephen Purdy, chief of the protected satellite communication division, said during an Aug. 4 press briefing.

Previous use of the AEHF satellites had been more limited.

“We’re proud to deliver an unparalleled leap forward in protected communications capability for both our nation’s senior leaders and also our warfighters in the field,” Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the head of the service’s Space and Missile Systems Center, said in a July 31 press release.

The AEHF system provides secure, jam-resistant communications for high-priority military missions. Though used by tactical military forces, the constellation’s most important mission is to allow the president and other elements of the national command authority to communicate and direct strategic operations in a nuclear war.

Two international partners on the AEHF program, Canada and the Netherlands, had already given the constellation a similar operational designation. The United Kingdom is expected to announce initial operational capability later this year, Purdy said.

“Compared to anything else on orbit, AEHF gives an unmatched level of protection and has five times the speed of legacy protected communication systems,” Mark Calassa, vice president of protected communication systems at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said in a July 31 press release from the company. “With AEHF reaching IOC, the system’s international partners can more quickly and safely command some of the world’s most capable militaries to address global instability as it arises.”

Sunnyvale, California-based Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor on the multibillion-dollar AEHF program. Northrop Grumman Aerospace of Redondo Beach, California, is the primary subcontractor, with responsibility for the highly secure, resilient communications payload.

The first satellite in the constellation, AEHF-1, was launched in August 2010 but took more than a year to reach its geostationary operating orbit due to a propulsion glitch. AEHF-2 launched in May 2012 and was followed by AEHF-3 in September 2013.

Following a break in the manufacturing line, the next three satellites now are in production. The fourth satellite, which is four to five months ahead of schedule, could launch as soon as December 2016. The fifth and sixth satellites are expected to launch in June 2018 and February 2019 respectively, Purdy said.

Technically, Purdy said, the Air Force needed only two satellites to meet the IOC requirement, but the service ran into an 18-month delay on an AEHF ground software system known as Increment 5. By the time the issue was resolved the third satellite had been launched. Complex military satellites often take a year or more for on-orbit checkout.

The Air Force is conducting an analysis of alternatives for its future protected satellite architecture. While the AEHF satellites have a design life of about 14 years, the Air Force is studying whether to keep the tactical and strategic payloads on the same satellite or to move them to separate satellites in accordance with a philosophy known as disaggregation.

The total AEHF program is expected to cost about $14.6 billion, according to an April report from the Government Accountability Office.

The Defense Department has three Raytheon-built AEHF terminals in use today: the Navy Multiband Terminal, the Humvee-mounted Secure Mobile Anti-jam Reliable Tactical Terminal and the Minuteman Minimum Essential Emergency Communications Network Program Upgrade. A new strategic terminal system, known as the Family of Beyond Line-of-Sight Terminals and designed for presidential and other national command authority communications, is under contract to Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems and expected to go into production by the end of this year.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.