New communication satellites needed to support U.S. forces deployed globally, including combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, continue to experience delays, top Defense Department and Government Accountability Office officials told lawmakers at a Senate hearing on May 20.
Programs behind schedule include the Advanced Extremely High Frequency system, which Lockheed Martin Corp. is developing. The launch of the first broadband satellite in the system has been delayed almost two years, from November 2008 to September 2010, Cristina Chaplain, GAO's director of acquisition and sourcing management, told the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.
President Obama endorsed the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite in his fiscal 2010 budget proposal as an example of a technology that uses mature systems that have a stable design.
Chaplain said the launch delays were caused by technical issues, which she did not specify. In March, GAO reported the Air Force had identified six components with workmanship or design problems, which will require contractors to remove five components from the spacecraft to repair. The sixth flaw requires a software fix.
Lockheed has fixed and replaced the problem parts, and the company expects to deliver the first satellite to the Air Force late this year or in early 2010, said Steve Tatum, a Lockheed spokesman.
The Air Force estimated the fourth Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite could cost more than twice the price of the third satellite because Lockheed said it would have to rebuild its production line to make key components, Chaplain said.
Gary Payton, Air Force deputy undersecretary for space programs, said at a news briefing in September 2008 that the first two satellites cost $6.3 billion, which included 10 years of engineering work. The third satellite cost $939 million, and the fourth will cost more than $2 billion.
The Defense Department requested $2.3 billion for the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite program in its fiscal 2010 budget to cover the launch of the first satellite, the assembly and integration of the second and third satellites, and procurement of the fourth satellite.
The Office of Management and Budget portrayed the program as a relative bargain compared with the canceled Transformational Satellite Communications System, which it will replace. OMB estimated the cost of the Transformational Satellite project at $19.3 billion and said Defense will save $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion through 2015 by procuring additional Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites instead of continuing with the Transformational Satellite project.
Payton said the Air Force intends to buy six satellites in the Advanced Extremely High Frequency program that can transmit data at speeds up to 1 megabit per second, or about one-seventh the speed of an average home high-speed Internet connection.
The Navy manages development of next-generation, low data-rate satellites, which send data at 64 kilobits per second, a rate only slightly higher than a dial-up Internet connection. Those satellites serve small ships and tactical ground forces equipped with man-pack satellite terminals, and the program has experienced delays.
Vice Adm. Harry Harris, deputy chief of naval operations for communication networks, said the new $3.2 billion low data-rate satellite system called the Mobile User Objective System, which Lockheed also is developing, "is critical to satisfying demand for tactical satellite communications."
But the launch of the mobile user satellite has slipped from March 2010 to February 2011 because of spacecraft design complexities and weight issues, GAO reported. Lockheed's Tatum said the company encountered technical problems with one of the satellite's antennas, "however we expect resolution this summer to support satellite integration and test later this fall."
The first mobile user satellite was scheduled for launch in 2008. The latest delay presents potential problems for naval and tactical satellite users because the current system has started to fail, Harris told the Senate panel.
The UItra High Frequency Follow-On system, "will reach an unacceptable level of availability in May 2010," Harris said. Two out of the nine satellites have failed, which could create a gap in communications until the launch of the first mobile user satellite.
He told the committee that the Navy has leased capacity on commercial satellites to help plug the gap and said the Ultra High Frequency Follow-On system continues to function beyond its design life. Today, those satellites support 600 users worldwide, Harris said.