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Air Force scales back ambitious satellite system, delays first launch

The Air Force announced on Jan. 16 that it had dramatically scaled back an ambitious satellite system that would give the military the ability to transmit larger amounts of surveillance and intelligence information to soldiers on the battlefield more quickly.

The $16 billion Transformational Communication Satellite system is not dead, Gary Payton, undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, told reporters in a conference call last week. But he added the service has delayed the launch date of the first satellite and issued a new draft request for proposals at a bidders conference with Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.

To make it more affordable, the Air Force dropped some capabilities, such as the requirement the system include Ka-band satellite transponders that can transmit high-speed data to terminals with an antenna about 1.5 feet in diameter.

The Air Force also dropped plans for laser cross-links that would have allowed satellites to communicate with each other and with unmanned aerial vehicles, Payton said. In addition, the service revised its time frame for the first launch of the leaner TSAT birds by three years, to 2019 from 2016, he added. The laser cross-links and Ka-band transponders will be added back to future satellites. To keep TSAT alive until it issues an RFP, the Air Force awarded a $75 million engineering contract in December each to Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The Defense Science Board said in a report released last month that TSAT's high-speed communications is urgently needed by ground and naval units to transmit broadband intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data. It recommended Defense "deploy TSAT as soon as possible to supply the high-capacity communications for moving data to the backbone network and to provide assured networking for ... mobile tactical users."

Despite the cutbacks, Payton said TSAT still will be able to transmit data at 5 gigabits per second, or roughly double the throughput of Wideband Global SATCOM system. Boeing announced last week that it got the greenlight from the Air Force to complete production of the sixth WGS satellite, which the Australian government has funded. Australian Defense Forces will have access the all six satellites in the WGS system.

WGS satellites transmit data at a rate of 2.4 to 3.6 gigabits per second, about six to nine times the rate of the average home high-speed Internet connection in a metropolitan area. The first WGS satellite went into operation in April 2008.

The Army needs a broadband satellite system to provide the links for the 14 manned and unmanned battlefield platforms it plans to deploy in its $160 billion Future Combat Systems program. Payton said the Air Force is committed to meeting that requirement.

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