CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The Air Force delivered the sixth Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) protected satellite communications system to the 45th Space Wing Jan. 11, providing the final space vehicle for the AEHF constellation and delivering the first space asset to the Wing since the Space Force was stood up late last month.

AEHF-6 was transported from Sunnyvale, California, to Cape Canaveral, Florida, via a C-5M Super Galaxy transport aircraft based at Travis Air Force Base. Among the dozen or so passengers and personnel traveling with the satellite were Kay Sears, vice president and general manager of military space for Lockheed Martin Space [LMT], and Col. John Dukes, senior materiel leader of the Geosynchronous Orbit Division, Space Production Corps at the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) at Los Angeles Air Force Base.

The satellite was handed over early Sunday morning to Astrotech Space Operations, which will process the system and prepare it to be mated to a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V space vehicle at Cape Canaveral ahead of an expected launch March 14. ULA is a joint venture formed by Lockheed Martin and Boeing [BA].

The delivery was described as bittersweet by Lockheed Martin employees on the ground at Moffett Federal Airfield in California, where the C-5M departed, and by Air Force personnel who had taken part in the program’s two-decade history.

“This constellation is coming to an end, and it’s been very successful,” Sears said in an interview with Defense Daily en route from California to Florida on the Super Galaxy. “But at the same time, there are people who have worked on it from Day 1 and I think they’re sad to see that end.”

Service and industry officials also noted the significance of the last satellite in the constellation marking the start of a new era of space acquisition programs as the U.S. Space Force was approved Dec. 20.

The upcoming launch will be an “historic event” as AEHF-6 will be the first launch of a Defense Department payload under the U.S. Space Force, said Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess, commander of the 45th Space Wing and director of the Eastern Range at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida.

Speaking in a phone interview Saturday evening with Defense Daily, Schiess noted the significance of the delivery as a joint operation between the Air Force, which drove the acquisition and development of the satellite and transported the system to Florida on a C-5M, and the Space Force, which will now take over the system and prepare it for launch along with its mission partners.

“14 March is what we’re tracking for an early morning launch,” he said. “It will be great to get that satellite up in space.”

Schiess said he is currently not tracking any concerns that would affect the planned launch. His team on the ground in Florida has been preparing for months “to review all the best procedures and make sure they’re ready to go,” he said.

The initial AEHF design and development contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman [NOC] in 2001. The first space vehicle was launched in 2010, with subsequent launches in 2012, 2013, 2018 and 2019. The constellation will relay secure communications for the U.S. military, as well as partner nations including Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Dukes, who took on his current assignment in July 2019, credited Lockheed Martin with completing “very clean building” on AEHF-6 and said the development process had been smooth for the space vehicle.

“We’re expecting that smoothness to continue when we get to the Cape and start our launch prep,” he said in an interview with Defense Daily  en route to Florida.

The Advanced EHF systems were built to augment the U.S. military’s existing Milstar constellation, whose five satellites have been operational since the early 2000s. Once all six satellites are declared operational, the new constellation will offer more secure and resilient anti-jam capabilities to supplement Milstar in providing global communications to the U.S. military and government with up to 10 times more capability and five times the data transport rate, Dukes said.

The sixth space vehicle will supply brand new payloads on a differently designed bus from AEHF-5, he noted.

“It brings a lot more of the newer generation communications technology [and] anti-jamming technology to the table, bringing a lot more strategic-type communications for the [U.S. president] and his senior staff to work with,” Dukes said. “It’s just the latest and greatest technology.”

Once the final system is launched and on orbit, the U.S. military will be able to have practically near-dual coverage worldwide, said Lt. Col Paul La Tour, AEHF space segment materiel leader in the Space Production Corps. “That is an incredible capability for the warfighter on the ground,” he told Defense Daily at Cape Canaveral Saturday evening.

The new configuration will also ensure those capabilities remain available to the U.S. military through 2030, as AEHF systems were built to be “relatively long-lived satellites,” he added.

The changing threat against the U.S. military and the renewed emphasis on space as a warfighting domain began to impact the AEHF program as the fifth and sixth satellites were in development, Sears said. “With 5 and 6, we began to think about resiliency features,” she said.

The sixth system is also the first in the program to have a 3-D printed part, she noted. The chassis was built using additive manufacturing techniques and that success will likely be replicated across Lockheed Martin’s portfolio, she said.

“We made these incremental, evolving changes over the life of the [AEHF] program, and that’s something to be really proud about,” she continued. “I think the challenge that we have as a nation is we need to do this, we need to do it faster, we need to do it more affordably. And that’s really the challenge to industry and to the Air Force and to the Space Force as we look to the future.”