An Atlas 5 rocket successfully launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida March 26 carrying a satellite that is expected to provide secure, jam-resistant communications for the military for the next 15 years.
The satellite, referred to as Advanced Extremely High Frequency, or AEHF-6, was the last in a family of six satellites. The AEHF system provides secure, jam-resistant communications for high-priority military missions. Though used by tactical military forces, one of the constellation’s primary missions is to allow the president and other elements of the national command authority to communicate and direct strategic operations in the event of a nuclear war.
“We are thrilled to accomplish this important milestone on the last AEHF satellite," said Col. John Dukes, senior materiel leader, SMC Production Corps’ Geosynchronous Orbit Division. “The combined integrated team worked diligently to ensure the success of this mission. The satellite is operating as expected and is ready to undergo orbit raising and on-orbit testing for the next several months after which it will provide mission critical capabilities to our warfighters.”
The first satellite in the constellation, AEHF-1, launched almost a decade ago, in August 2010, but took more than a year to reach its operating orbit due to a propulsion glitch. For much of the time since then, military and industry officials have debated the role of highly protected satellite communications in future space architectures.
AEHF replaced the MILSTAR constellation in providing protected, anti-jamming satellite communications to high-priority United States military assets and its international partners in Canada, United Kingdom, Netherlands and Australia.
Industry and military officials tout that one AEHF satellite has three time more capacity than the entirety of the previous MILSTAR constellation and that the entire AEHF constellation will provide 10 times more throughput and increase coverage.
In April 2019, the Government Accountability Office reported the total cost of the satellite program was about $15.5 billion for the six satellites. That’s more than double original projections. Space Force officials noted March 26 the final two satellites, AEHF-5 and AEHF-6, were purchased as part of a block buy for a total cost of $2.15 billion.
Lockheed Martin was the prime contractor on the program. Northrop Grumman provided the payloads.
“While this is the final AEHF satellite launch, it really brings the constellation to full strength, capability and truly marks the beginning of the AEHF system’s full lifecycle,” said Mike Cacheiro, vice president for protected communications at Lockheed Martin
Military leaders have said they want the next-generation of protected communication satellites on orbit in the mid-2020s.
Earlier this year, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing won $680 million worth of contracts to build prototype payloads for the Space Force’s Protected Tactical Satellite Communication program.
The Space Force is developing that program as its next generation anti-jamming satellite communications system, providing tactical communications for war fighters worldwide over the Protected Tactical Waveform. The PTS family of systems will utilize dedicated geostationary satellites as well as payloads hosted on commercial satellites and those operated by international partners.
Mike Gruss is the editor in chief of Sightline Media Group.