The Air Force isn’t ready to say that budgetary and planning changes in the Transformational Satellite Communications program will necessarily push the launch of the first TSAT satellite out from 2016 to 2018, a senior service space official said March 4. “We are not necessarily married to a 2018 launch,” Gary Payton, deputy under secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs, told the Senate Armed Service strategic forces subcommittee. Instead USAF is currently examining how best to synchronize the fielding schedule of TSAT satellites with the plans of the US military’s user community that will rely on the secure communications-on-the-go capabilities provided by the constellation, he said. For example, TSAT is considered a critical enabler for the Army’s Future Combat Systems. According to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who heads the subcommittee, the Air Force has slashed $3.6 billion from the TSAT program between Fiscal 2009 and Fiscal 2013, thereby slipping the previously stated goal of achieving first launch in 2016 to 2018 “at the earliest.” But Payton said these changes may not actually have the schedule impact that they may appear to have on paper. “We do not know yet what the first spacecraft launch schedule is like until we define the content of that first block of spacecraft,” he said. “It could be earlier than 2018 … depending on the needs of the warfighters.” The decision to procure a fourth Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite for launch prior to TSAT has removed one of the schedule drivers for launching the first TSAT spacecraft by a certain point next decade, essentially giving the Air Force more time to decide, he said. “That vehicle completes a global ring or geosynchronous satellites for protected strategic communications,” he said. At the same hearing, Gen. Robert Kehler, head of Air Force Space Command, said the fourth AEHF satellite “allows us not to take the next couple of months to assess what the pace and scope of TSAT needs to look like.”