— U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon
on Oct. 17 opted to scale back the capabilities of the Air Force’s Transformational Satellite, or T-Sat, communications system, stripping out the laser-optical intersatellite links and reducing overall system capacity, according to Pentagon sources.

The cheaper, less-capable system is known as the T-Sat Digital Core, one of two options the industry teams competing to build T-Sat were directed to start developing when they were awarded study contract extensions in June. At that time, plans called for launching the first T-Sat satellite in 2016 – now the Air Force is targeting 2019.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., and Boeing Integrated Defense Systems of St. Louis have been working on T-Sat risk reduction contracts since 2004. The contracts have been extended several times, now running through the end of 2008 and worth at least $650 million apiece. The Pentagon currently does not have an expected award date for a T-Sat prime contract, and it is unclear whether the Air Force intends to extend the study contracts further. Congress appropriated $768 million for T-Sat in 2009.

The U.S. Defense Department officially maintains no final decision has been made on the status of the program. “The department is still reviewing the requirements associated with the T-Sat program, but [it] remains committed to fielding a T-Sat solution by [fiscal year]
Pentagon spokesman Chris Isleib said via e-mail.

The prime contract for the more-capable T-Sat system previously envisioned would have been worth around $15 billion. The requirements for the T-Sat Digital Core have not yet been finalized, and as such, the exact specifications of the constellation and its price tag are still in limbo. Sources familiar with the new plan said T-Sat is likely to lose its planned optical communications capability, one of its defining features, along with a portion of its radio frequency antennas and some of the other technologically advanced features.

However, T-Sat’s Internet protocol router, another defining feature intended to facilitate critical communications for mobile forces, will remain. Still to be decided is how many satellites will be built, and whether these satellites would be identical or grow in technical complexity and capability with successive versions, an approach commonly referred to as spiral development.

‘s decision now must be codified in a concepts development document, to be signed by John Young, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. Air Force Space Command then will work with Pentagon leadership to determine the final requirements, which must be approved by the Pentagon’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council and signed off on by Young.

Since the program will be different from the request for proposals Boeing and Lockheed Martin originally responded to, a new solicitation must be issued before a contract can be awarded.

Analysts and members of Congress had been warning that the original T-Sat program could not stay on schedule with the current funding profile. When the Air Force submitted its 2009 budget request in January, it anticipated spending $6.6 billion on the program from 2009 through 2013, compared to the $10.7 billion the service anticipated in the previous budget request.

In a March hearing, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) warned that the 2009 budget request “completely undermines the program” and would delay the launch of the first satellite until late 2018. Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), in a hearing around the same time, questioned the Pentagon’s commitment to secured communications.

But Congress may have had a hand in slowing down the T-Sat. The Air Force had hoped to build just three of the prior-generation Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) secure communications satellites before moving on to T-Sat, but lawmakers passed legislation in 2007 requiring the Air Force to buy at least one additional AEHF spacecraft.

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute in
, and a T-Sat advocate, said the latest developments in the T-Sat saga might not be the last. He predicts the system eventually will go away entirely, leaving the Air Force to buy more Wideband Global Satcom or AEHF satellites. To date, two Boeing-built Wideband Global satellites have been launched; the first Lockheed Martin-built AEHF is slated to launch in 2009.

“Air Force programmers have been trying to turn T-Sat into a bill payer [for other programs] for years now,” Thompson said. “The dream of each warfighter having a direct link to the global information grid is slipping away. No matter what anyone in the Pentagon tells you, the decision is going to result in soldiers dying. If you can’t get a timely communications connection and you’re under fire, the risks of dying go up astronomically.”

Neither Boeing nor Lockheed Martin have been notified officially of any deviation in the Air Force’s T-Sat plan.

“Boeing hasn’t been officially notified of any changes to the T-Sat program, either for the current Risk Reduction and System Definition contract, or for the ongoing competition for the Space Segment Development and Production contract,” Boeing spokesman Eric Warren said in an e-mail. “We will continue to work with our Air Force customer as the acquisition proceeds, and we look forward to an award decision.”

Lockheed Martin spokesman Steve Tatum said via e-mail that his company also has not been notified of any change in Air Force plans. “Our team has worked diligently with our customer on system definition and to successfully demonstrate the key technologies integral to T-Sat,” he said. “We are prepared to begin full scale development of this important capability to our armed forces.”