Launch delayed for Air Force communications satellite

Construction glitches uncovered during testing will delay launch of the first advanced extremely high-frequency communications satellite from 2009 to 2010, Air Force Space Command officials said.

The four-orbiter, $9.24 billion AEHF program is the military’s communications successor to the Milstar constellation, parts of which are functioning past their anticipated decade-long lifespan. Earlier this month, the Air Force modified the contract with prime contractor Lockheed Martin. When they announced the $252 million contract modification, Air Force officials said the first AEHF orbiter “is undergoing a significant amount of rework on mission-critical units due to anomalies.”

In follow-up written statements from the Military Satellite Communications Systems Wing, part of the Space Command’s Space and Missile Systems Center, officials said the most serious anomalies were in the first orbiter’s power regulation and security electronics parts. The $252 million will fund assessments of repairs to orbiters under conditions that mimic the temperature and vacuum environment of space, they said. Most of the repair and replacement is already complete, they added.

A new launch date hasn’t been selected, said Lockheed Martin spokesman Steve Tatum. “It’s still under evaluation by the Air Force,” he said.

The AEHF program encountered delays in September 2007 when officials announced a slip of more than six months. Technical problems with some hardware components delayed the start of system-level environmental testing, the Government Accountability Office noted in its 2008 annual evaluation of selected weapons programs.

The Air Force also notified Congress in September that program costs had risen by at least 25 percent, enough to trigger a breach under the Nunn-McCurdy law, which at that level of cost growth requires the Defense Department to examine alternatives. At the time, Air Force officials attributed the breach to costs associated with adding a fourth orbiter to the constellation, a move Congress recommended that the Air Force undertake in the conference report accompanying the Defense Appropriations Act for fiscal 2008.

The military space community has debated for years whether to launch three or four AEHF orbiters, and debaters’ position depended on how confident they were that the Transformational Satellite program would fully materialize on schedule. DOD leaders are discussing that program’s future, with no anticipated launch date.

About the Author

David Perera is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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