The U.S. Air Force’s top civilian official said the technology for a new constellation of highly capable communications satellites is mature enough for full-scale development, even as the service studies alternatives that include deferring the program indefinitely in favor of buying more of the earlier-generation systems.


Speaking to reporters April 9 here at the National Space Symposium, Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said Congress is coming around in its support of the Transformational Satellite Communications System, or T-Sat, and it is only a matter of time before a system development prime contract is awarded and the program can move forward.


Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif., and Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., are competing for the T-Sat prime contract. Both have been developing T-Sat designs and technologies under Air Force risk reduction contracts.


The Air Force has spent roughly $1 billion on these efforts, according to military and industry officials.


I think we’re in a good space now, provided the requirements for protected communications [remain the same],” Wynne said. “If the Army still wants to do distributed network operations and a network-centric [Future Combat System], then I think this will allow them to do that.


“I think the whole thing has just been slid right. Now we’re at the point where we’re ready to domino. We’ve got two viable competitors, and we think that if the acquisition requirements hold firm, we can execute.”


The T-Sat system, which incorporates satellite-to-satellite laser links and Internet routing technology, is expected to provide the U.S. military with an unprecedented level of mobile, protected communications capacity. The system until recently was expected to begin launching in 2016, but the Air Force is reassessing the program’s direction and currently does not have a specific target launch date.


Congress has long been concerned about the risks and costs associated with T-Sat, and directed the Air Force last year to buy at least one more of the prior-generation Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites than the service had planned. The Air Force’s 2009 budget request, submitted to Capitol Hill in February, included funds for the additional AEHF satellite and $843 million for T-Sat – $385 million less than what the service had planned to ask for at the same time last year. Moreover, the service reduced its six-year spending plan for T-Sat by some $4 billion. In December, the Air Force launched an analysis of different approaches to meeting T-Sat requirements.


Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space, told reporters here that the results of the analysis will be presented to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England in May, one month later than previously expected.


That study is examining the full range of options, from alternative designs for the T-Sat satellites to procuring more of the current-generation systems and greater reliance on commercial satellite services, Payton said. The current-generation systems include the Boeing-built Wideband Global Satcom satellites that began launching last year and the Lockheed Martin-built AEHF satellites, slated for deployment starting next year, he said. Also under consideration is a T-Sat system that is even more capable than currently envisioned, he said.


The review also is intended to better synchronize the Pentagon’s future satellite communications capabilities with the systems that will rely on them, such as the Future Combat System, Payton said.