NEWTOWN, Conn. --- Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites will be delivered to the U.S. Air Force through 2019. With Initial Operational Capability (IOC) achieved in July 2015, the satellite network will fulfill an important duty for the U.S. Department of Defense by offering significantly higher communications capacity than the Air Force's existing Milstar satellite fleet.
Originally planned to be a three-satellite network, the Air Force added a fourth satellite in 2010 and two more in 2013, bringing the total to six satellites.
There has even been talk of adding a seventh and eighth satellite to the network to bridge any gap with a follow-on system. The Pentagon eliminated funding for those satellites in its FY15 budget request. The Air Force will study a number of alternatives to provide extremely high-frequency bandwidth to U.S. forces.
Alternatives being considered include deploying AEHF payloads onto other satellites, purchasing smaller satellites, or utilizing the Protected Tactical Waveform on commercial satellites. The purchase of additional satellites remains a possibility, though.
The two satellites added in 2013 were purchased under a block-buy acquisition known as the Efficient Space Procurement plan. Under ESP, the Air Force procures multiple satellites at the same time. Funding then flows to the program steadily throughout the construction phase.
The service believes that buying satellites this way will increase efficiency by giving manufacturers a stable and predictable source of funding and by taking advantage of economies of scale.
The program continues to be controversial in Congress, as lawmakers do not want to force future Congresses to spend money based on decisions made today. However, Congress did approve the block buy for the AEHF-5 and AEHF-6. The Air Force has reported that the block buy saved the service $600 million compared to what the satellites would have cost under an individual buy plan.
The Air Force has started investigating a follow-on to the AEHF constellation. The service expects to start a risk reduction effort and planning acquisition strategy in 2017. It is still unclear what the AEHF follow-on architecture will be. However, the Air Force appears to be seriously considering disaggregating strategic and tactical communications. Instead of categorizing satellites based on the bandwidth they use, categorizations will be based on whether they provide strategic or tactical communications.
No matter what architecture is decided on, deliveries are expected to begin in the mid-2020s.