Boeing, which won the original FAB-T contract in 2002, claims it has worked through the pitfalls that have delayed the project over the last decade and caused the Air Force to seek an alternate supplier in case the company couldn't overcome those challenges.
Company officials say their FAB-T design meets Air Force requirements for these communication devices, which are designed to convey, protect, and enhance information exchange along the nuclear chain of command. They say the project is 95 percent complete. The remaining 5 percent involves testing and integration.
Boeing says it conducted successful transmission tests between its terminals and orbiting satellites in June. "I'm very confident, but the proof is in the pudding," said Paul Geery, Boeing's FAB-T program manager, in an interview. "We've gotten through all of the qualifications."
Meanwhile, would-be alternate supplier Raytheon says its FAB-T offering already meets 80 percent of FAB-T requirements. The company says it has successfully tested its design with simulated satellites.
Scott Whatmough, Raytheon's FAB-T program directing manager, said the company still has much work to do, but was off to a good start.
"I'm very happy with our current capabilities," he said in an interview.
The Air Force is expected to decide in September whether to bring on Raytheon to develop its design in parallel to Boeing's ongoing work.
"The objective of awarding an alternate source contractor is to reduce risk to the government," an Air Force spokeswoman with the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles AFB, Calif., told the Daily Report. She added, "The government strategy enables two sources for FAB-T development to ensure at least one vendor is capable of meeting the warfighter's delivery need date for command post terminals."
The Air Force wants to field an initial FAB-T capability by 2017, with full operations by 2020.
The original contract calls for terminals on E-4s, E-6s, B-2s, B-52s, RC-135s, and ground command posts. The alternate source contract calls for terminals on E-4s, E-6s, and the ground command posts, according to the service.
FAB-T will allow the President to send data, voice, and imagery commands to nuclear launch sites and nuclear-capable bombers. Anti-jamming capabilities will safeguard these communications from interception and subversion.
"If you think about nuclear command and control," said Whatmough, "everyone needs to talk to everyone seamlessly, without any ambiguity or room for misunderstanding."
FAB-T must be interoperable with the older Milstar military communications satellites and with the new Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications spacecraft, which can pass larger amounts of information.
"The services have developed a lot of devices, many of which are not interoperable—that's no secret," said Whatmough. He said Raytheon has been addressing this problem over the last decade in developing different communications terminals for the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
Now, Raytheon must tailor the terminals to the unique needs of the Air Force. "You can imagine," said Whatmough, "these terminals have to survive high altitudes and low temperatures" as well as doses of radiation in the event of a nuclear attack, vibrations, and the shocks of flight.
"We have confidence we can address all of the environments because of our experience as the developer and producer of the existing command post terminals that are currently in operation today," said Raytheon.
These environmental challenges, however, were the primary reasons for Boeing's FAB-T delays, according to Geery.
Such factors led to schedule delays in Boeing's FAB-T maturation and cost estimates exceeding Boeing's initial estimates by hundreds of millions of dollars. As a result, the Air Force earlier this year nearly terminated Boeing's contract. However, the company, confident that it could see the project through, offered to adjust the structure of its contract from cost-plus to fixed-price, so the Air Force did not axe the deal.
Geery said Boeing underestimated the difficulties entailed in building the versatile, durable FAB-T antennas. He added that each aircraft destined for a terminal called for a different antenna design, and changes in Air Force requirements also contributed to delays.
"When you're halfway through a design cycle and you have to change the overall architecture, it ripples out and creates delays," said Geery. He added that the company has altered its approach after meeting these roadblocks.
Boeing has applied "lean manufacturing principles from other successful programs" that the company has executed to reduce costs and improve schedule, said Geery. He said the company is making greater efforts to work with customers at senior levels so nothing slips through cracks in communication.
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