As the U.S. Space Force plans to start moving away from the extended data rate (XDR) Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) strategic communications satellites in the next decade to field a more resilient Evolved Strategic SATCOM (ESS) constellation, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) is concerned that the transition may leave gaps in coverage.

Initial ESS satellites may deploy in fiscal 2030 to achieve an initial operational capability in fiscal 2032. Currently, five AEHF satellites, built by Lockheed Martin [LMT] and equipped with Northrop Grumman [NOC] payloads, provide strategic SATCOM. AEHF has supplemented the five orbiting Milstar satellites by Lockheed Martin. The latter satellites feature low and medium-data rate communications.

HASC “is concerned that the nation’s strategic SATCOM capability will have growing vulnerabilities during the transition period as currently planned, and wants to ensure that this critical capability is sustained and evolved as responsively as possible to the rapidly emerging and evolving threat environment,” per an amendment by Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) to HASC’s fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill.

“The committee further notes that industry concepts have emerged to optimize the transition by leveraging proven commercial on-orbit servicing satellites coupled with mature communications payload equipment to assure legacy AEHF sustainment while providing an accelerated transition to a more resilient ESS capability,” per Waltz’s amendment, which HASC approved as part of an ‘en bloc’ package. “Therefore, the committee directs the secretary of the Air Force to provide a report that defines and validates technical concepts, cost, schedule, risks, policy, and benefits of on-orbit servicing of current strategic communications satellites and evaluate the merits of the concept in providing a transition path for future capabilities. The report shall be submitted to the House Armed Services Committee not later than March 1, 2022, and may include a classified annex, as necessary.”

Waltz is a member of the HASC Strategic Forces Subcommittee and a former Army Green Beret.

The ESS constellation is to be interoperable with AEHF and eventually replace it.

Last November, Lockheed Martin received a $258 million contract to develop a prototype ESS payload that the company is to prove out in a hardware and software in-the-loop, end-to-end demonstration.

Lockheed Martin is to compete with Boeing [BA] and Northrop Grumman for the ESS contract. Boeing and Northrop Grumman received contract awards last October and September (Defense Daily, Oct. 5, 2020)

According to a 2018 document, the government determined that only these three companies are capable of delivering XDR waveform processors within the payload that is required.

Contracts for the full ESS system are expected to be awarded in 2025.