By B.C. Kessner

The executive director of Air Force Space Command’s Space and Missile System Center (SMC) said the vagaries of very ambitious satellite and terminal programs caused end dates to get out of step, but not severely enough to impact the overall lengthy process from launch to operational capability.

“In the case of AEHF, we put both the AEHF satellite…and FAB-T on contract…within months of one another,” Doug Loverro, SMC executive director, said Thursday at the third annual U. S. Space Mission Assurance Summit in Reston, Va. The goal was to have the Boeing [BA] Family of Advanced Beyond Line-of-Sight Terminals (FAB-T) ready when the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite was ready, but as time moved on and problems developed on both programs, “they got a little out of sync,” he added.

“Not critically out of sync,” Loverro added. “I’ll remind everybody that it’s not just the FAB-T program, it’s the Navy’s NMT [Navy Multiband Terminal]…which is being fielded, actually, right now by Raytheon, and other terminals as well that are capable of using some of the features of AEHF.”

Raytheon [RTN] recently achieved a key milestone in its potential $1 billion NMT program with the first production order worth $37.6 million for next- generation NMT satellite communication terminals (Defense Daily, Oct. 22). NMT is designed to give the Navy secure multi-banded communications connectivity utilizing the AEHF waveform. It integrates its Extremely High Frequency (EHF)/AEHF capability with two-way military Ka- and X-band, and the Global Broadcast Service. NMT is also compatible with Wideband Global SATCOM, backward compatible with legacy satellite systems, and interoperable with legacy Navy and other service terminals.

Loverro said that people often think that as soon as a satellite is launched, that’s when the capability would be available. “That’s not actually the case. In the case of AEHF…notwithstanding the fact that it’s going to take us a little longer to get to orbit than we planned, even if we had been to orbit in the timeframe that we had planned, which would have been about 3 or 4 months after launch, there was still a very long checkout phase to go through,” he said.

Two AEHF satellites are needed in orbit for operational tests of the capabilities, he said. While operational terminals are not yet available, many engineering manufacturing development terminals have been built that will allow testing. Some of the terminals were built by Lincoln Labs and others were built and delivered by Boeing under the FAB-T program, he added.

“So, what appears to be an asynchronous process actually is a very long extended process of satellite launch, movement to orbit, payload checkout, the launch of a second satellite, the checkout of the combined constellation to make sure you can maintain an XDR waveform from the ground to one satellite, crosslink to another satellite and back down to a user terminal, and then an actual fielding of those terminals into an operational test,” Loverro said.

“It’s not until we go through the operational test that we can really turn that capability over to the warfighter and say that capability is now ready to be used in an operationally relevant and warfighting fashion,” he added.

Under the best of circumstances, the timeframe for all that to occur is about two years, he said.

Many people have expressed concern that this is using up valuable satellite life, but Loverro said this is not necessarily the case.

“Our technical folks tell us quite frankly the best way to extend a satellite’s life is to get it into space, into an environment that it’s supposed to be operating in, and not to keep it on the ground where it’s not intended to be,” Loverro said.

That is the reason the Air Force launches the satellites as soon as it’s prudent, once they have gone through development, he said. “Moving into space, finding out the issues that may be attendant to that satellite–such as we found out with the AEHF propulsion system–working through those issues, getting it to its orbit, checking it out fully, for when we’ll have to populate the terminals necessary to do the testing and eventual movement operation, I don’t believe that we view that as a waste of the satellite capability,” he added.

“I think we view [those] as the necessary steps to go through in getting everything to a place where we can test it, and [in] recognition that we’ll never match it perfectly…it would be somewhat questionable whether or not we should try to match it perfectly because it just won’t happen,” Loverro said.

When a vehicle’s intended to operate in a zero-G vacuum environment, that’s the best place for it to operate, Loverro said. The typical thing that runs out on a satellite is fuel, and while it’s not operational, little fuel is spent moving it around. The batteries last longer in space, the solar panels get exercised, and don’t degrade as in an atmospheric environment, he added.

“I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that there is no degradation because there is some, but we do find that we have the fewest problems with satellites that are launched right after they complete manufacturing as opposed to those we stick in storage and have to pull out again and spend, in many cases, a significant portion of the original development price to get it ready again for launch,” he said.