Magazine article National Defense

Military Wrestles with the High Cost of Satellite Terminals

Magazine article National Defense

Military Wrestles with the High Cost of Satellite Terminals

Article excerpt

Pricey spacecraft and rockets receive plenty of attention in the press and on Capitol Hill, but terminals are where the real savings are to be found for a Defense Department challenged by decreasing budgets, industry and government officials said.

A case in point is the new Advanced-EHF military communica- tion satellite program, which, after years of delays, now has three of the six planned spacecraft in orbit.

Tim Frei, vice president of communications systems at Northup Grumman's space systems division said, "There are very few users on Advanced-EHF because of a lack of terminals. They're not out there." They have been developed, but they are not fielded in great quantities because they are not affordable, he said at the Milcom conference in San Diego.

The Navy's new multiband terminals, which are designed to interface with Advanced-EHF satellites, are expected to cost $6.9 million per unit. Full capability isn't expected until 2017, according to 2012 and 2013 Government Accountability Office assessments of the program. Current GAO estimates for the long-delayed family of advanced beyond line-of-sight terminals (FAB-T) intended for airborne and ground-based users show them at $18.6 million apiece.

Buying and installing the terminals can run anywhere from 20 to 30 times more than the cost of the rockets and spacecraft, said David Madden, executive director of military satellite communications at the Space and Missile Center.

"By far the number one cost in our business is the terminals and the terminal integration," he said at the conference.

A long-standing problem that leads to waste and cost overruns is that satellite and terminal development programs are carried out separately. The Air Force, for example, builds spacecraft, while the Army might be in charge of the radios. Rarely do the Earth-bound communication devices reach the end of their development cycle at the same time as the satellites.

Cristina T Chaplain, GAO director of acquisition and sourcing management, testified at the Senate Armed Services Committee last year that "ground control systems and user terminals in most of DoD's major space system acquisitions are not optimally aligned, leading to underutilized satellites and limited capability provided to the war fighter."

Chaplain pointed to the FAB-T program. The terminal has gone through numerous cost and schedule delays and is currently not synchronized with the Advanced-EHF satellites. The FAB-T program has yet to deliver any capabilities. Current estimates show that FAB-T will reach initial operational capability for some requirements in 2019, about five years then- A-El-IF reaches its initial operational capability, she said in April.

Air Force Space Command, which has no new-start milsatcom programs on the horizon, is looking at terminals as one of several ways to save funding in a period of austerity.

"We just can't afford to replace all the terminals out there. ... We have got to use the infrastructure we already have. If we don't do that, we are DOA from the start," Madden said.

One of the most depressing parts of his job, he said, is visiting a military unit and seeing its "terminal graveyard," where 30 or so of the devices from a former program are sitting unused. Every time there is a new satellite, the services are forced to develop a new terminal from the ground up. The command is looking at ways to leverage what is already available.

"How do we use the ones we've built, change the modems out, change the feed and move forward? Instead we continue to start from ground zero in building new systems. How do we leverage the commercial terminal market and take advantage of that ... to drive down costs?" Madden asked.

"If we can't do that, what we're finding is that no matter how good a protective system we put together, we can't afford the terminals for it, therefore we have very limited usage. …

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