Final AEHF Launch Marks a Turning Point for DoD Space Acquisition

The plane should have taken off by now.

A commercial airplane typically takes about 30 seconds to speed down the runway and lift off into the sky. But when you’re traveling in a C-5 Galaxy military transport aircraft carrying up to 840,000 pounds of cargo – including a 14,000-pound, 32-foot protected communications satellite, plus personnel and miscellaneous cargo – it can take nearly a full minute to become airborne.

As a defense reporter along for the ride, unaccustomed to flying in a Galaxy, I couldn’t help but find it a bit disconcerting. But once we were airborne, it was smooth sailing.

As the aircraft crew prepared for takeoff one bright January morning early this year, the pilot, U.S. Air Force Capt. Adam Smith, had to be especially cognizant of the runway length and terrain surrounding Moffett Federal Airfield in Sunnyvale, California, south of San Francisco.

That’s true of any flight on the C-5, a colossal aircraft with a wingspan of over 222 feet that can lift more than a quarter of a million pounds and could have carried NASA’s Space Shuttle. But this was a particularly critical mission: Smith was shipping the final Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite to Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the first-ever delivery of a space asset to the newly formed U.S. Space Force.

The size, weight, and sensitive nature of a military satellite make it tough to transport, says Smith, a senior pilot serving in the 22nd Airlift Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, California, who has flown the C-5 since 2015. The vast weight differences of flying the aircraft with varying cargo pose a challenge, he says. “The plane flies much differently … and adjusting how you fly the jet based on its weight takes practice.”

Once airborne, the C-5 crew must take care to avoid turbulence when possible, and control the temperature and pressure of the cargo box to protect the satellite’s sensitive condition. On the cross-country journey, there were multiple thunderstorms stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Ohio that Smith and his crew had to fly through with as much finesse as possible. Up in the passenger bay above the cargo hold, the travelers on board – Air Force personnel, program leaders, a couple of spokespeople, and myself – were barely aware of any bumps in flight.

All in all, it takes loadmasters about eight hours to safely secure the satellite and its gear into the aircraft. “There are only a few inches to spare on all sides as it enters the plane through the forward door, which means the load team has to move slowly and carefully,” Smith says, noting that the satellite’s container barely fits into the cargo box of the C-5. Once at the Cape, it takes about the same amount of time to unload the cargo before sending it off to the next phase of its journey to prepare for launch.

The AEHF program is a joint service satellite communications constellation, built to replace the aging Military Strategic and Tactical Relay (Milstars) systems launched in the 1990s.

It was built to provide 10 times the throughput of its predecessor system, allow for near-dual military satellite communications (Milsatcom) coverage across the globe and ensure the president of the United States maintains assured communication even in the event of a nuclear attack. Multiple countries contribute to the AEHF program, including Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

The Air Force awarded the contract for the design and development of four satellites to Lockheed Martin in 2001, with Northrop Grumman responsible for building the payload. In 2009, the Department of Defense (DoD) approved the procurement of two additional satellites. Launches began in 2010 with Space Vehicle 01 (SV-01), and subsequent launches took place in 2012, 2013, 2018, and 2019, before the final launch in March 2020 with the launch of SV-06 from Cape Canaveral aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

The program has progressed over the past two decades with bumps in the road – design issues in the early days led to years of schedule slippage. Two Nunn-McCurdy significant unit cost breach notifications were sent to Congress in 2004 and in 2008 amid production delays due to hardware issues, the need for additional tests and greater-than-expected integration costs, per a 2016 report by the DoD.

But as the satellite-laden C-5 stood on the tarmac in Sunnyvale, awaiting final checks and personnel boarding before departure, those who had worked on the program at Lockheed Martin for years described the experience of watching the final satellite depart as bittersweet.

“People are starting to trickle off and find different positions within the company,” says Ari Vogel, Lockheed Martin’s protected communications program director. “You’re like a proud dad, right? You’re happy, but also sad.”

Vogel has spent 17 years at Lockheed, including 15 years working on the AEHF program in six separate positions, starting as a systems engineer and most recently serving as the program’s space segment director. The program’s mission has kept him motivated throughout the years. He recalls a colleague who deployed to the Middle East as an Air Force Reservist during Operation Iraqi Freedom; when he returned, he brought Vogel back a piece of local currency with Saddam Hussein’s face on it.

“He said, ‘Ari, you may not know it, but we are 100% dependent on the systems that you are working on when I'm over in Iraq,’” Vogel says. “The power of understanding – as a young, inexperienced engineer – the impact of our mission, has stayed with me throughout my entire career.”

The program office encountered several challenges, particularly toward the start of the program as it integrated flight electronics on the first space vehicle, resulting in issues that required the team to remove and replace flight units, he says.

“AEHF is a very complex system to put together,” Vogel says. “As you would expect in anything where there are so many different interfaces, there were quite a few learnings in terms of how we integrate things.”

Around 2007, the program office’s culture shifted “to really a proactive culture where .... people are encouraged and actually rewarded to bring issues forward,” he adds. From then on, problems were resolved more collaboratively and efficiently, and the need to “remove and replace” decreased significantly from the first AEHF satellite’s build to the sixth.

“Something that our team is really proud of and put a lot of effort into is making sure that we improved from vehicle to vehicle,” Vogel says.

The satellite design itself changed significantly over the course of the program, he notes. The first three AEHF vehicles were essentially clones of one another, with the exception of AEHF-2 hosting an extra payload. Significant obsolescence issues required a redesign for the fourth satellite, and the fifth and sixth vehicles included major technology on-ramps, Vogel adds.

Lockheed Martin also changed the battery subsystem between the fourth and fifth satellite builds, he notes. What sounds like a “pretty straightforward” switch drove changes to flight units, as well as the satellite’s structure, flight hardware and more, Vogel adds.

The final two AEHF satellites included new resiliency capabilities, and the sixth satellite build incorporated a new 3D-printed chassis – a success Lockheed Martin plans to replicate across its space systems portfolio, the company says.

The program’s launch provider has made improvements over the last two decades as well. ULA – a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin – provided rides for all six AEHF satellites, with the first three space vehicles launching on ULA’s Atlas V rocket in its 531 configuration, and the final three aboard the 551 configuration.

Since the first launch in 2010, ULA refined its custom transfer orbits to help the satellite minimize propellant consumption as it jumps to Geostationary Orbit (GEO), says Tory Bruno, the president and CEO of ULA. “We've gotten better at that over the last decade. … This really represents the pinnacle of our ability to design these customized precision orbits that extend the life and utility of our payload,” he says in an interview. On average, a customer gets as much as three years of additional life when they do a customized orbit, he notes.

Bruno, who worked on the Milstars program as an engineer at Lockheed Martin, says it was “apropos” for the final AEHF satellite to mark the inaugural Space Force launch as “the marquee communications technology for the country.”

“These are really important birds. … It’s obviously bittersweet to be launching the last one of these, but it's also really, really satisfying to see this constellation filled out so that it now has its full global coverage with all of its cross links and all of its capabilities,” he adds.

AEHF-6 was the first national security payload to be delivered to the Space Force when it was transported in January from Lockheed Martin’s facilities in Sunnyvale, California, to the 45th Space Wing on the Cape. In March, it became the first national security payload launched by the Space Force into orbit. For those in the Space Force, the timing could not have been better.

“It’s a great time to be in the space business,” says Lt. Gen. John “JT” Thompson, commander of the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center. SMC is the command responsible for acquiring, developing and sustaining the U.S. military’s space systems at Los Angeles Air Force Base.

“The capabilities that we're putting on orbit right now, across a whole range of missions, [are] really cool. And we're being recognized as a separate service,” Thompson says. “The excitement about that is just palpable.”

The U.S. Space Force was formally established in December 2019 within the Department of the Air Force, with its own four-star general serving as one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and with a separate budget request from the Air Force. While the creation of the Space Force was heavily promoted and supported by the Trump administration, lawmakers in Congress had been lobbying for a new branch dedicated to space for years – one with the ability to quickly field systems that would maintain the U.S. military’s advantage in space and deter peer adversaries.

Operators will rely upon the AEHF satellites for years to come, but the service can’t take as long to field such a critical capability anymore, Thompson notes. “Satellite communications – not just the government part of it but the commercial part of it – will really fundamentally change here over the next decade. And we in the government must be able to take advantage of it. If we can't take advantage of it? Well, we're in trouble.”

The defense industry and the U.S. military are both being challenged to move faster to keep pace with the growing threat in space, says Kay Sears, vice president of military space at Lockheed Martin. She says she has seen alignment across the DoD, from the Joint Chiefs of Staff down to the acquisition officers and program executives “like we’ve never seen before.”

“That is comforting and it makes us feel empowered to go do what we need to do,” she says in an interview on the C-5 bound for Cape Canaveral. “It feels like a shared risk environment – we're going to take some risk, they're going to take some risk.”

The company’s space portfolio is pushing to deliver its national security capabilities in half the time for half the cost, she adds. For example, Lockheed is focusing on developing software-defined capabilities, where operators can alter the software on board from on the ground, rather than having to wait for the next launch to upgrade the hardware.

Evolving Threats to Space Systems

Speed to fielding is now very much of the essence, officials say. The U.S. military could consider space as a “sanctuary” during the Cold War, according to a 2013 report by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. Back then, the Air Force’s space systems mainly supported missions including missile warning, intelligence, and nuclear command and control.

Now, more than 40 nations own and operate their own satellites, and both the military and civilian worlds are powered by space-based capabilities. Under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, nation states agreed not to place weapons of mass destruction among the stars; as a result of that treaty and a détente between the United States and the Soviet Union at the time, many U.S. space assets were built with critical vulnerabilities in conventional warfare, CSBA notes.

“Milsatcom systems are vulnerable to physical attack (kinetic and non-kinetic), electronic attack (jamming), and cyber attacks,” the report says. While the U.S. military must prioritize the fielding of more resilient, hardened satellites to counter any potential attacks, affordability is also key, as these acquisitions traditionally require long-lead development times and field small procurement quantities.

When the Air Force produced the Milstar satellites in the 1980s and began developing AEHF, the priority was to “give the warfighter capability and control costs,” Thompson says.

“Because there was not a significant threat component in the early days of those programs … the schedule aspect really wasn't as much of a priority as capability and cost. That paradigm is shifting,” he adds.

In 2017 at the annual Halifax International Security Forum, then-U.S. Strategic Command Commander Gen. John Hyten issued a new direction on how he thought the U.S. military should procure new space systems, moving away from “exquisite” satellites and toward “more resilient, more distributed capabilities.”

“As a combatant commander, I won’t support the development any further of large, big, fat, juicy targets,” he said at the time. “We are going to go down a different path, and we have to go down that path quickly.” In 2019, Hyten was sworn in as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the number-two military official in the nation.

His guidance did not fall on deaf ears. With Thompson at the helm, SMC’s workforce has undergone a culture change over the past two years to speed up capability delivery, and cut through bureaucratic red tape with the aid of new authorities granted by Congress to rapidly fund and field prototypes.

“What I see in my workforce right now is a willingness to experiment, to learn new things, [and] transition away from major stove-piped programs of record like Milstars and the AEHF programs,” Thompson says.

What’s Next for Protected Military SATCOM?

The U.S. military will rely on the capabilities of the AEHF constellation through 2030, but the Space Force now is pivoting to shape its next-generation protected tactical and strategic satellite communication systems.

AEHF hosts both the tactical and strategic SATCOM missions, but going forward, those missions will be bifurcated, says Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, senior vice president for Government Strategy and Policy at Inmarsat Government.

“There will be a series of different payloads potentially, flown on a variety of different satellites to provide that nuclear command and control mission … and tactical mission,” says Hirsch, who previously served as an Air Force acquisition officer.

The Space Force is working with industry to develop capabilities for these two missions via the Evolved Strategic Satcom (ESS) and Protected Tactical Satcom (PTS) programs. Over the next decade. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman have all received initial contracts to begin work on these efforts.

Lockheed Martin is investing heavily in new technologies to quickly bring the next protected Milsatcom systems to life, Sears says. “There's no silver bullet” to developing a resilient model, and future constellations will span multiple-sized spacecraft in multiple orbits, she says.

“You’ve got to have this layered defense,” she notes. The company is investing in digital processors, different types of antennae and phased arrays in order to enable higher power beams, and the agility of those beams to be focused to avoid jamming.

Cowen-Hirsch sees opportunities for the Space Force to work with commercial satellite partners on future protected tactical SATCOM programs. Inmarsat is organically investing in new technologies and capabilities to make its systems more resilient in a contested environment, she says.

“Inmarsat invests significantly in its own protection of its assets, both in terms of how we command and control it, the manner in which we operate it, where our ground stations are [and] where government traffic goes through,” she says. “We think we are very well placed … [and] users in the government space, as well as our commercial users, benefit from these investments.”

Speed to delivery is now a requirement, and the Space Force is working with the defense industry to see which capabilities already exist to move programs along faster, Thompson says.

SMC worked with Boeing to bring down the cost of the 11th Wideband Global Satcom system when Congress wanted the military to buy two new satellites, he notes. The company and service agreed to procure only one new satellite, with more capacity, power and ability to project spot beams from GEO. “It’s a fundamentally different satellite from WGS-10 and we’re going to build it faster, because we’re taking advantage of changes in the space domain in terms of size, weight, power and in this case, taking advantage of commerciality,” he says. VS

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