Air Force Launch Competition To Include Missile Warning Satellite

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WASHINGTON — GPS missions will comprise the bulk of the U.S. Air Force’s first block of competitively procured launches in more than a decade, but there also will be a missile warning satellite and an unidentified payload in the mix, a senior service official said.

The Air Force plans to award nine medium-class launches in the competitive Phase 1A of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, beginning with a GPS 3 mission whose award is expected in March of next year, said Claire Leon, director of the Space Launch Enterprise Directorate at Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles. The remaining eight launches will include five more GPS 3s, a Space Based Infrared System missile warning satellite, a mission dubbed Air Force Space Command (AFSPC)-9 and possibly an aging weather satellite, Leon told reporters during a conference call Oct. 2.

The weather satellite is the last in the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, whose legacy dates back to the 1960s. After going back and forth on whether it needed to launch DMSP-20, which was built in the 1990s, the Air Force decided in favor of launching, only to run into congressional skepticism.

Both the House and Senate defense spending bills for 2016 deny funding to launch the craft, but the Pentagon, like the rest of the federal government, is currently operating under a continuing resolution that funds programs at 2015 levels. The continuing resolution runs through Dec. 11; the prospects for getting a dedicated 2016 spending bill after then are unclear.

Leon did not identify the payload or payloads for the AFSPC-9 mission. The public affairs office at Space and Missile Systems Center late on Oct. 6 referred a request for additional details to Air Force Space Command.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is pressing ahead with the first of the Phase 1A missions, releasing the final request for proposals to launch a GPS 3 satellite in 2018. SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, is expected to square off with the Pentagon’s longtime monopoly provider, United Launch Alliance, for the fixed-price contract, with bids due in mid-November.

Denver-based ULA has said the current congressionally imposed ban on the Russian-built main engine that powers its workhorse Atlas 5 rocket will make it unable to bid for the GPS 3 contract, but a defense authorization bill recently hammered out by House and Senate negotiators would provide some relief from the restrictions. The White House has threatened to veto that bill over unrelated provisions, but ULA could seek a Defense Department waiver from the ban or reallocate an exempted engine to compete for the mission, Leon said.

The U.S. Air Force's upcoming fifth and sixth satellites in its missile warning constellation will have a new satellite bus. CREDIT: Lockheed Martin.
One of the Air Force’s Phase 1A EELV awards will be for the launch of a Space Based Infrared System missile warning satellite. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Leon said a solicitation for the second Phase 1A mission will be issued in the coming months. “There should be a few out this summer,” she said.

The Air Force does not anticipate issuing nine separate solicitations as some of the GPS missions can be bundled into a single procurement, Leon said. All nine Phase 1A missions are expected to be awarded by the end of 2017.

Leon declined to discuss the prices the Air Force anticipates getting from the competitors, saying only that they should be lower than what the service has been getting from ULA. The average launch under ULA’s block buy contract with the Air Force — a procurement of 36 Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rocket cores that has been hailed as a cost saver — is about $140 million, she said.

There are no heavy missions in Phase 1A but there will be four in the first two years of the Phase 2 batch of missions, Leon said.

ULA operates the Delta 4 Heavy for these types of missions, while SpaceX is developing the Falcon Heavy with an anticipated first launch date sometime next year. Like the Delta 4 Heavy, the Falcon Heavy features three core stages in a side-by-side configuration.

Leon said SpaceX and the Air Force are currently working to certify an upgraded version of the Falcon 9 and then will move on to certification of the Falcon Heavy.

SpaceX is expected to win initial certification for the medium-lift Falcon 9 Upgrade, slated to debut later this year, in time to bid on the first competitive GPS 3 mission. But should it win the contract SpaceX will have to conduct three successful missions of the variant before it can launch the Air Force satellite.