Space Fence Development Closely Tied to Upgrade of U.S. Air Force Control Center

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s contract with Lockheed Martin to develop a next-generation space surveillance system includes measures to ensure compatibility with the service’s situation room for space activity, which also is undergoing a major upgrade.

The Defense Department announced June 2 it had awarded Lockheed Martin a $914 million contract for the Space Fence, one of the military’s biggest space-related development contracts that had been up for grabs in several years. Raytheon was the losing bidder.

Steve Bruce, vice president for advanced systems at Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training, said in a June 2 conference call with reporters that the contract includes a provision requiring that data from the Space Fence are provided in a format that works easily with the Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Center.

The JSPOC, which is responsible for space surveillance, collision avoidance and launch support, is undergoing a three-phased hardware and software upgrade with an eye toward providing more precise and timely orbital information, among other goals. Officials have said the so-called JSPOC Mission System (JMS) upgrade is required to handle the amount of data the Space Fence will generate.

A March 2014 report from the Government Accountability Office said the update is expected to be complete by December 2016, about two years before the Space Fence is expected to be operational. The Air Force asked for $73 million for the program in its 2015 budget request.

Lockheed Martin’s contract also requires the company to work with JMS contractors to coordinate capabilities and milestones to ensure a seamless transition of data, Bruce said. The GAO has criticized the Air Force in the past for struggling to coordinate the acquisition of its ground and space segments.

The Space Fence, as well as the JMS, have long been top priorities of Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command. But the Space Fence contract award had been delayed, and the program scaled back, due to budget constraints.

Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training of Moorestown, New Jersey, and Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems of Tewksbury, Massachusetts, spent years developing competing designs and prototypes for the Space Fence, an S-band radar that will be capable of tracking greater numbers of smaller objects than current U.S. space surveillance assets.

“By providing a better picture of the space operating environment, Space Fence will greatly improve the Air Force’s ability to see and understand that battlespace,” Dana Whalley, the Air Force’s Space Fence program manager, said in a June 4 press release.

The contract is a pillar of the Air Force’s space surveillance plans as top leaders repeatedly talk about space becoming congested, contested and competitive.

The new system is expected to have a greater sensitivity than previous radars and will allow the Air Force to track baseball-sized objects as far out as 1,900 kilometers in space. It will be able to detect and track these objects without being specifically tasked to do so.

The Air Force has spent some $1.6 billion to date on the Space Fence program, according to the GAO report.

The system initially will consist of a radar site on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. That site is expected to begin operating in November 2018, but the Space Fence will only reach full capability with the completion of a possible second site in 2022.

That second site is planned for Australia, but further details are not expected to be released until after the first site is declared operational. The second site, which was included as an option in Lockheed Martin’s contract, will “fill in the gaps” in the system, allowing the Air Force to see some objects more often, Bruce said.

The Air Force had planned to award the Space Fence contract last year but delayed the selection due to budgetary difficulties that put the program’s future in doubt. Lockheed Martin and Raytheon in February said they submitted revised fixed-price incentive-fee proposals to the Air Force to accommodate the delay, which the Air Force has said will add about $70 million to the program’s cost.

The system replaces the Air Force Space Surveillance System, which was shut down in September due to budget constraints. The Air Force currently relies on other surveillance assets, including ground based radar and optical sensors, and satellites.

In an April 22 briefing with reporters, Bruce said, the Space Fence would track about 200,000 orbital objects and make 1.5 million observations per day, about 10 times the number made by previous radars such as the AFSSS. Air Force leaders have estimated that the actual number of objects orbiting Earth is closer to 500,000.

The new system would have a maximum coverage area of 40,000 kilometers, whereas the AFSSS covered 22,000 kilometers maximum, Bruce said.