Northrop Grumman is offering a new concept for addressing what company officials see as a growing demand for tactical, protected satellite-based communications to the Pentagon.

The company, which builds the communications payload for the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite managed by Lockheed Martin, is proposing a version of that payload that would be sized for commercially available satellite busses. The goal is to house only the tactical, protected EHF portion of the payload on this smaller satellite, leaving the nuclear-hardened equipment designed for the nuclear command and control mission to the larger, more costly AEHF spacecraft based on Lockheed’s A2100 bus.

“It is not an Advanced EHF satellite but it does provide the tactical, anti-jam protection and low probability of intercept … that the AEHF waveform uses,” says Rick Skinner, director of business development for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.

This tactical EHF satellite would provide about 80% of the capability of an AEHF satellite at one-third of the cost of AEHF 5 and 6, which are now being built.

Based on the Air Force’s recent not-to-exceed contract with Lockheed Martin, the cost of the two AEHF satellites is approximately $2.42 billion, or $1.21 billion each. That puts the price of Northrop’s tactical EHF satellite under $400 million apiece. Perhaps more important, Skinner says, is that the tactical EHF satellites could be built and delivered within five years of an order; AEHF satellites require as much as eight years.

A similar payload was already scaled down for use on a classified host satellite for the Enhanced Polar Satcom mission. This payload provides connectivity to nuclear forces at the extreme northern regions, over the pole. “We have demonstrated that we can take these lego [like] components … and put them together in mission-purposeful ways,” Skinner told media during a briefing in Washington in advance of next week’s Air Force Assn. conference in Orlando. “This is not a new program. These are components that the Department of Defense has invested billions of dollars in.”

By basing the tactical EHF satellite on a medium-sized commercial bus, Northrop is targeting use of the SpaceX Falcon family of launchers, which Skinner says will provide launch at a lower cost than the traditional Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle rockets used now by the Air Force.

Northrop Grumman is targeting a sale of these satellites, but Skinner said the company is open to the idea of launching them and leasing services to the government, if there is an assured purchase from the national security community.

Though Northrop is directly offering this capability to the Air Force, Skinner says the company’s relationship with Lockheed Martin on AEHF remains strong. And Northrop is open to the idea of Lockheed being a part of the tactical EHF team. “You can ask Lockheed Martin, and they want to steal it; we are happy with that,” Skinner says.