Air Force moves to acquire new missile-warning satellites: What we know so far

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In the next-generation OPIR program, Air Force wants to show it can take years off the typical timeline for launching a new constellation.

WASHINGTON — The Air Force on Friday released a “notice of intent” to sole-source contracts to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman for the next-generation overhead persistent infrared program. The five-satellite constellation known as the next-generation OPIR will succeed the current Space Based Infrared System. The Air Force wants a new system that is more survivable against emerging threats.

Lockheed Martin will be responsible for three geosynchronous orbit satellites and Northrop Grumman for two polar orbit satellites.

In a news release, the Air Force said it is implementing “rapid procurement authorities” and is targeting the first next-generation OPIR launch in 2023.

The Air Force did not provide any estimates on the value of the contracts. That may not be known for months, as the notice of intent only marks the beginning of the negotiations with both contractors. Neither company would comment on the Air Force announcement.

It is not unusual for the Pentagon to publicly notify an intent to sole-source a contract, but this is a especially sensitive program where the Air Force wants to show it can take years off the typical timeline for launching a new constellation. Negotiating deals for major military systems can take several months, so revealing the intent to sole-source now can help speed up the contracting process.

The Air Force’s goal of putting up a new constellation in five years, however, seems ambitious. A 2023 launch is the target for the first geosynchronous satellite. The first polar orbit satellite would launch in 2027. And the entire system, known as the “block 0 architecture” would be on orbit by 2029, according to documents.

The Air Force late Friday published two “presolicitation” notices of intent to sole-source OPIR satellite development and production. Lockheed Martin’s contract will be for geosynchronous orbit space vehicles 1 through 3. Northrop Grumman’s contract will be for polar orbit space vehicles 1 and 2.  Both deals will be predominantly “cost plus incentive fee.”

The Air Force informed Congress in February it wanted to end the procurement of Lockheed-made SBIRS satellites after vehicle 6 and shift the funds previously allocated for SBIRS 7 and 8 to develop a new system. This was viewed by some analysts as a game changer and a sign of a potential shakeup in the military satellite market. But the Air Force’s decision to sole-source the next-generation OPIR further solidifies Lockheed Martin’s dominance. Northrop Grumman provides the SBIRS payloads and is Lockheed’s primary subcontractor. Giving Northrop Grumman a share of the satellites also strengthens the company’s foothold in the program even if there is a future payload competition.

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Remote Sensing Systems Directorate said opening up the program to new entrants was not a realistic option given the urgency of the program. “Based on market research, an award to any other source would result in an acceptable delay in fulfilling the Air Force’s critical and urgent requirements and substantial duplication of costs to the government that is not expected to be recovered through competition,” said he presolicitation.

The sole-source decision announced on Friday should be no surprise to anyone who has followed the Air Force’s efforts to replace SBIRS. In November, the Remote Sensing Directorate informed contractors of a need to address an “unusual and compelling urgency”for a new missile-warning system and stated Lockheed was the only company qualified do the job within the required timeline.

Lockheed is the sole producer of Air Force-validated nuclear hardened spacecraft that can meet government requirements and “urgent need dates,” the directorate said. The November request for information said the government was “considering soliciting and negotiating a sole source contract” with Lockheed Martin for the the entire block 0 system, including all five satellites. The RFI indicated that the full architecture would be operational by Fiscal Year 2029, with an initial launch capability in Fiscal Year 2025.

It was known from the November solicitation that the new system would have five geosynchronous and two polar orbit satellites “to counter emerging threats while operating in a contested environment.” What has changed since November? The initial launch of the first GEO satellites is being moved up by two years to 2023, and the satellite contract was broken to give Northrop Grumman the polar spacecraft.

Regardless of how quickly or not the Air Force develops the future missile warning satellites, officials caution that this program is only the first step toward long-term changes in how space systems are acquired.

The next-generation missile warning constellation will be a “pacesetter” for learning to speed up traditional acquisitions, said Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Will Roper. He hopes to see a “switch in the mindset” of procurement managers as they try to balance the need to deliver on time with a “reasonable amount of experimentation and prototyping.”

Developing, producing and launching into orbit a new constellation in five years is “aggressive,” said Roper. “Five to six years is a gold medal.” Whether it’s five or six years, the idea is to start changing the thinking “so program managers can take advantage of discovery in getting things right but can hedge their bets in case something goes wrong.”

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Stephen Kitay gave the Air Force props for “working hard” to make space systems more resilient. “The next-generation strategic missile warning system is part of a transition to a future overhead persistent infrared architecture that implants new resiliency features,” Kitay said on Friday at a Mitchell Institute event on Capitol Hill. “There is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution to mission assurance,” he said. “Just as there are a variety of threats and missions, we’ll need a variety of capabilities,” he said. “We’re going to have to bring creativity and innovation to this problem. And we’re working on going faster.”