Software Engineering Institute | Carnegie Mellon University
Software Engineering Institute | Carnegie Mellon University

Acquisition Support Program Helps Air Force Satellite Program Manage Complexity

When the United States Air Force undertook one of its most challenging military satellite communication projects ever, it asked the Software Engineering Institute to help.

The Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT) program is creating the next generation of secure communications satellites—a network of advanced orbiters and ground stations that will provide the bandwidth needed for high-volume, Internet-like links across land, sea and air forces deployed around the world. The SEI has collaborated with the Air Force on the space segment (developing what is essentially a router network in orbit) and the mission operations segment—the ground stations tying it all together.

The SEI is helping define requirements and the system software architecture, estimating cost and size, analyzing potential software issues, participating in design reviews, and helping assess risks, including oversight of contractors. 

Much of what the SEI team does, Lapham says, is help the TSAT program plan for and deal with complexity. “We’re talking about more than five million lines of code,” she says.

“This project is exciting for everyone involved—the SEI and other research centers, the contractors, and the Air Force,” says Mary Ann Lapham, who coordinates the SEI’s involvement. “It marks another step in DoD’s continuing adoption of software-intensive systems.”

“The SEI team has truly been the conscience of software on the TSAT program,” says Col. Jay Moody, TSAT deputy program director and the project’s chief systems engineer. “The Institute has provided detailed expertise in individual program segments, and is now helping the program with tools to avoid software pitfalls within the system.”

In 2007, the SEI team helped the government program office complete the system design review. The SDR is a foundation for all systems development to come, and marked the first formal review of the overall program design. The SEI team reviewed defense contractors’ preliminary designs for each part of the system, analyzing the approaches,  and working with the contractors to resolve potential issues.

Much of what the SEI team does, Lapham says, is help the TSAT program plan for and deal with complexity. “We’re talking about more than five million lines of code,” she says.

Printed single-sided from a standard office printer, she notes, it would constitute a nearly 30-foot tall stack of paper. “So just the sheer volume is impressive,” Lapham says, “without even beginning to think about documentation or any algorithms involved with the domain it will work in—space, networks, and communications.”  

 “The SEI has reiterated the importance of thorough, disciplined processes in managing the development of software-intensive systems,” Col. Moody says. “The Institute’s background and focus on large-systems development and acquisition complements the contributions of the entire integrated team. It’s been a good, productive collaboration.”

As the United States continues to move toward net-centric defense systems, programs like TSAT are the leading edge of a wave of software-intensive development. The SEI’s research and knowledge in creating the complex systems will continue to benefit not only the Air Force, but the entire defense community.

“Dealing effectively with increasing complexity is absolutely vital to developing networked systems that provide the U.S. warfighters with the winning edge,” says Col. Moody.