TSAT hits new turbulence

Future military satellite network hits key technology targets, but costs and alternative capabilities could keep the $20 billion program from getting into orbit

Uncertainty continues to swirl around the recently restructured Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT) program, a key piece of the Defense Department’s plans for future network-centric warfare, even though elements of the program have reached a pivotal stage in technology readiness.

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Building bandwidth in space

Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the competing contractors on the program, recently announced that component technologies have moved to a preliminary design review stage. Reaching that milestone demonstrates the maturity of the solutions, which are essential to implementing TSAT, the companies said. Lockheed Martin has been working on a way to improve the efficiency of networked devices in satellites, while Boeing has been tackling the need for software that lets TSAT’s space and ground systems work together, among other tasks.

However, a major restructuring of the program announced at the end of last year significantly shifted the timeline for when some of TSAT's major capabilities will be available. Those changes and suggestions from the Congressional Budget Office, among other observers, that TSAT could be dropped as part of defense funding strategies have raised doubts about TSAT’s future. As originally planned, the TSAT program would cost more than $20 billion.

The Air Force, which oversees the TSAT program, isn’t backing away from its commitment.

“The Air Force continues to support TSAT very strongly, and the need to deliver [enhanced] communication capabilities to warfighters,” said Col. James Wolf, chief of the Military Satellite Communications (Milsatcom) division of the Air Force Space Command. “In no way should recent events be interpreted as a reduction in our efforts to provide those capabilities.”

Jose del Rosario, a senior analyst at Northern Sky Research and a longtime observer of TSAT and other Milsatcom programs, said he believes attitudes toward the program might be changing for several reasons, such as the ballooning cost of TSAT, bandwidth available from other satellite constellations and changing needs on the ground.

TSAT’s goal is to provide Internet-like capability to deployed forces and extend DOD’s Global Information Grid to users in the field. To do that, TSAT is incorporating a number of recently developed technologies, including space-based packet routing. It will also provide assured, secure and jam-resistant broadband communications to warfighters who often must deal with low-bandwidth communications that are only intermittently available.

“TSAT is expensive,” del Rosario said. “There’ll be over 30 gigabits/sec of capacity available from those other [Milsatcom] programs. TSAT [initially] adds around 28 gigabits/sec more, and that’s a ton of total bandwidth. With the move, maybe they won’t need TSAT.”

Delivery in stages

The Air Force planned to launch the TSAT constellation in 2013, according to its original plan set earlier this decade. That was later pushed to 2015, and the recent restructuring of the program delayed the first launch even further and included a cutback in capabilities to the TSAT digital core.

The first satellite in the new Block 10, phased program will now go up in 2019, to be followed by one more in each of the following three years. A fifth satellite will be built, but held as a spare. In total, that’s one less satellite than originally planned.

However, the Block 10 program also cuts the laser crosslinks that would have allowed the satellites to talk to one another at speeds as fast as 40 gigabits/sec. It also drops Ka-band support for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, and it employs less onboard processing power.

Those capabilities will likely be included in later increments of the overall TSAT program.

The Air Force made those requirement changes to the TSAT Space Segment contract, which governs the construction and launch of the satellites, along with ground support facilities. Other parts of the program include the TSAT Mission Operations System (TMOS) segment, which will provide operational and network management, and a System Engineering and Integration (SE&I) segment.

Request for proposals for the restructured space segment contract are expected to go out in April, with an award of the $11 billion contract due in 2010.

Contracts for TMOS and SE&I were awarded several years ago and are unchanged, other than having to accommodate the needs of the new space segment.

The restructuring of the TSAT program first began during winter and spring 2008, Wolf said, when DOD conducted its Milsatcom future investment strategy review. The department conducted the review to restructure the entire Milsatcom portfolio, but primarily the TSAT program, to better balance affordability and changing communications needs.

DOD codified those recommendations as part of its budget process during the summer and the consequent acquisition direction from then-DOD procurement chief John Young, culminating in the final memo in December that details the restructured TSAT program.

Some observers said they believe this new phased approach strengthens the program and gives it a better shot at success.

Retired Air Force Gen. Lance Lord, who led the Space Command until March 2006, said the problems with TSAT are common among many satellite programs: There’s optimism early on about the costs involved. But eventually, that is overcome by reality, and costs inflate rapidly because that first job of estimating costs is done so poorly.

“If you simplify your approach and go with a building-block approach, I think you really get a better way to ensure end-to-end mission assurance,” he said. “And that, after all, is the critical thing for doing something like [TSAT] at all.”

And the restructuring doesn’t mean that the ultimate goals of the TSAT program have changed, Wolf said.

“We still have [the Joint Requirement Oversight Council]-validated requirements for all the things in the original TSAT program,” he said. “We simply are going for a less ambitious way to phase ourselves in to provide those capabilities.”

Innovation required

TSAT will integrate — and provide — a number of revolutionary capabilities. It would dramatically enhance communications-on-the-move for mobile tactical forces and airborne ISR, Wolf said.

But it will also need new technical innovations, such as packet-based routing in space. Current data delivery approaches that use static routing aren’t well suited for large numbers of moving satellites. A dynamic routing method or other approach is needed to discover networks and links as they become available and intelligently use them for routing.

Those capabilities haven’t been tried on TSAT's scale, which presents a number of technical and programmatic risks to the Air Force. Consequently, adding solutions over time would help reduce some of those risks.

Reducing risk has been a major focus of the TSAT program, with Lockheed Martin and Boeing working separate multiyear contracts to develop and prove much of the basic technology that TSAT will use before the Air Force deploys it.

Lockheed Martin has been working on a technology named SpaceWire that provides a weight-efficient and flexible approach to high-speed networking among a satellite's various components. Rather than communicate using separate electrical paths, SpaceWire allows many different devices to share the same set of connections.

The company said it also strives to reduce risk by using many of the components that have already been through the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) development cycle, for which Lockheed Martin is responsible. That also means there is a low-risk approach to the backward compatibility between TSAT and AEHF systems that will enable AEHF terminal users to also capture TSAT signals.

Boeing also has announced successes. The company recently demonstrated a software program that will allow all of TSAT’s space and ground systems to work together, thus eliminating the need for multiple software programs to run different operations.

A common application program interface allows the separate and sometimes incompatible systems on a satellite to coordinate effectively by making different hardware and system elements invisible to the application software, said John Peterson, Boeing’s TSAT campaign director.

“This ensures that programs used on the satellites and in the ground station computers execute the required mission without errors that commonly occur when incompatible technologies are combined,” he said.

These and other key technologies developed by Lockheed Martin and Boeing have already reached Technology Readiness Level 6 (TRL-6). That’s about as high as new space technologies can go on the ground, according to Wolf. By definition, he said, TRL-7 and greater levels require demonstration in the space operating environment.

That work hasn’t been cheap. The risk-reduction contracts are each worth about $3 billion so far. Both companies received six-month extensions at the beginning of 2009 to refine their designs to meet the requirements of the restructured TSAT program.

Promise with a price

Whether all of this ends up in TSAT satellites is still an open question. Despite the Air Force‘s commitment to the program, it’s had its share of criticism.

As early as 2004, the Government Accountability Office recommended that TSAT be delayed until its key technologies were more mature. Congress has already cut the program’s budget several times, and speculation has again spiked that it could do so again this year.

Last year, in a study on the long-term implication of the fiscal 2009 budget on future defense programs, the Congressional Budget Office called for continuing to purchase satellites for existing programs but to cancel TSAT.

“If TSAT was going gangbusters, then there’d be no argument,” said Victoria Samson, senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information. “But even with the problems the AEHF program has, you could still go with that.”

AEHF has also come under criticism for cost overruns and delays. But a single AEHF satellite provides greater bandwidth than the entire current Milstar fleet, and Congress provided funds several years ago for a fourth AEHF satellite.

There is a need to provide protected communications, Samson said, but it’s not clear if TSAT is the only program that can deliver that, particularly with the new administration saying it would take a hard look at all big dollar programs. TSAT is so long term, she said, while the focus now is increasingly on near-term needs.

However, Lord said he thinks the problems TSAT is facing are nothing new. Affordability was always an issue with the program, he said, as are the criticisms of cost overruns and the old saw about ”you guys just don’t know what you’re doing.”

“I think trying to decomplicate that and bring [the program] down to bitable chunks might be a good strategy to defeat that, as well as to control requirements creep and all of the stuff that goes with big satellite programs,” he said.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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