Wes Covell, President of Defense Programs, Harris Corp.
Harris Corp. does not have a separate space division, but that did not stand in the way of the Melbourne, Fla.-based communications, ground systems and antenna company from logging some $700 million in space-related business last year.
The company’s Civil Programs business unit bested Raytheon in May to land a $736 million contract to build the ground segment for the next generation of U.S. geostationary weather satellites. On the defense side of the house, Harris is teamed with Northrop Grumman for a contract the U.S. Air Force is expected to award in the coming months to build the next-generation GPS ground segment.
Wes Covell, the 19-year Harris veteran leading the firm’s Defense Programs business unit, rose up through the engineering ranks, spending a lot of that time doing satellite communications system design.
While his experience makes Covell a natural fit for leading a defense business for which satellite communications are its mainstay, the Johns Hopkins University-educated electrical engineer admits he sometimes has a hard time staying out of the day-to-day design work.
“It probably drives a lot of our engineers nuts because their boss tries to get his hands dirty more than they would like,” he said.
Under Covell’s leadership, Harris’ Defense Programs business unit has had a string of recent successes in the military satellite communications arena that should ensure a steady stream of work in coming years. Last year the company nabbed multiple U.S. Navy contracts under the Commercial Broadband Satellite Program to deliver the majority of new X-, C- and Ku-band terminals as the service transitions away from L-band communications. In April, Harris won the Army’s Modernization of Enterprise Terminals contract worth as much as $600 million over 10 years to replace X-band terminals around the world that operate with the Defense Satellite Communications System with new X- and Ka-band terminals that will also work with the military’s new Wideband Global Satcom constellation. The company also provides antennas for the Wideband Global Satcom spacecraft.
The company’s other space-related work includes providing satellite command and control software and actually flying satellite systems, including theconstellation, the Air Force’s GPS constellation and various Navy satellites. It also does imagery analysis work for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and develops classified systems. One major piece of new business Harris will not be winning is work on the Air Force’s Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) communications system.
The $26 billion program was canceled earlier this year while still in competition, Covell, however, said he does not think the effort Harris put forth as a subcontractor on Boeing’s T-Sat bid will go to waste since the requirements driving T-Sat have not gone away. As such, Covell says he thinks there likely will be future business opportunities for Harris to provide the types modems, routers, antennas and ground terminal equipment it was developing for that system. Covell spoke about some of those opportunities with Space News staff writer Turner Brinton.
Besides the GPS ground segment, what opportunities in space are you eyeing?
The biggest program we were competing for was T-Sat, and we were on the Boeing team. There is still a mission need for communications on the move that are robust and survivable to warfighters on the battlefield and to support the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission of airborne assets. We are actively pursuing alternatives to T-Sat.
Otherwise, we’re not sure there are going to be any major new constellations to pursue in the near term. Where we think the major pursuits will be are either some sort of hosted payload package or enhancement of the Wideband Global Satcom or Advanced Extremely High Frequency constellations with T-Sat-like capabilities. The mission requirements have not been met, so there’s a lot of aggressive work taking place right now in industry.
Harris is building the deployable reflectors for the Navy’s Mobile User Objective System (
It’s a relatively sensitive time with the MUOS program and I’d rather not get into it at this point.
Harris provides imagery analysis for the intelligence community. Do you see opportunities to do similar work for the military as tactical satellite imagery becomes more prevalent?
Absolutely. One field that is exploding right now is full motion video. You have vast streams of data coming down from overhead platforms, but what do you do with that type of intelligence source? The last thing we want on the tactical battlefield is the soldier sitting there watching video feeds. What they want is queuing mechanisms in place so they get the right video at the right time, giving them actionable intelligence to go do something with.
If you look back to when we first started collecting still imagery, a whole set of tools had to be developed to turn pictures into actionable intelligence. You needed to be able to do change detection, feature extraction, align multiple images together spatially, add value to them with metatagging, archive them and disseminate them. All that same stuff has to be done for motion imagery. The reason I highlight that is Harris Corp. in addition to being a defense company is also a world leader in broadcast solutions. We have a broadcast division that builds hardware for the radio and television industry. We do the information archival, retrieval, processing, annotation and distribution — the whole flow of managing video information for the commercial market. A logical transition is to bring that into the defense space.
What other adjacent markets do you think you are primed to tap into?
End-to-end communications services, which is certainly a competitive field. The military needs services that provide connectivity from a ship, through a satellite, to a teleport and into a network. In other words, it needs an end-to-end transport layer link from point A to point B. There is transponder time that needs to be leased and landlines and teleports that must be aligned. The people who can best optimize that must take advantage of the terminals on the ground and space assets, balance the power and frequency considerations to disadvantaged terminals, develop waveforms and multiple access schemes and provide security. We provide all those things, and that is an advantage for Harris. Space is a system for us.
The key there is systems can’t afford to be fragile. People will not accept their mission-critical data over a fragile system. So it needs to be secure from a cyber point of view, but it also needs to be secure from a point of jam resistance and command and control security. We do these kinds of end-to-end systems for the Federal Aviation Administration and a number of other customers. We think we could do it for the Defense Department as well.
How could you better serve your Defense Department customers?
The Pentagon is always talking about the 80 percent solution that is good enough. We in industry have to be able to gain access to the thought leaders in our customer community much earlier than we have been in the past. In other words, if you expect to have an 80 percent solution on the shelf or near the shelf in an affordable and timely manner, we need to be steering our internal research and development earlier. To assume someone’s just going to happen to have that right solution sitting on the shelf at the time the customer needs it is kind of a pipe dream. The Pentagon needs to help our engineers understand what things they think they will need in the next 10 years. And if you asked all of my customers that same question, it would be awful nice to get the same answer.
If we are held at arms length, our customers won’t know what capabilities we are developing, and we won’t know their mission needs not only today but in the future. Conferences and symposia are great, but being a part of exercises is how we could really be a part of the elucidation of the needs. That will help take the randomness and happenstance out of having an 80 percent solution ready when it’s needed by the warfighter.