WASHINGTON — The big-ticket U.S. military space procurements for 2013 include a bulk purchase of satellite launchers, a consolidation of launch range operations and maintenance work, and the long-awaited modernization of the Pentagon’s nerve center for space operations.

Also expected this year are purchases of medium-range target vehicles for missile defense testing, additional missile warning satellites and a contracting vehicle expected to facilitate more frequent use of hosted payloads, in which dedicated military capabilities fly piggyback on commercial or civil satellites.

But looming fiscal uncertainty has cast a shadow over these and all Pentagon procurement plans.

Already, the U.S. Defense Department, like every federal agency, is operating at 2012 funding levels under a six-month continuing resolution set to expire at the end of March. That scenario, which could be extended for the remainder of the fiscal year, could make it difficult to find funding for some of the planned projects.

Additionally, the Defense Department faces the threat of sequestration, the automatic budget cuts that will kick in March 1 unless Congress and the White House agree to a strategy to reduce the nation’s deficit. The Pentagon’s share of sequestration totals more than $500 billion over the next 10 years.

Gen. William L. Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, characterized the budget environment as “the worst I’ve seen in 36-and-a-half years in the business.” He said the Pentagon planners do not have the information they need to make decisions about the kinds of hardware and services they need to acquire.

The budget conditions notwithstanding, several substantial military space and missile defense procurements are coming due in 2013.

Prominent among the expected contracts is an order of eight rocket cores under the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, which is used to launch the vast majority of U.S. national security payloads. The EELV block buy is part of the Air Force strategy to bring down the cost of a program that according to a 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office is expected to cost $19 billion from 2013 to 2017.

In a November 2012 memorandum, the Defense Department authorized the Air Force to buy as many as 50 rocket cores over the next five years, including up to 36 on a sole-source basis from EELV incumbent contractor United Launch Alliance (ULA) and as many as 14 on a competitive basis. According to the Air Force, the initial batch of rockets under the block buy approach is expected to be ordered from Denver-based ULA before the end of the year.

The most hotly contested procurement of the year could well be the Launch and Test Range System Integrated Support Contract, or LISC, a 10-year program that consolidates three contracts currently supporting the Air Force’s launch ranges at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Last spring, six industry teams were gearing up to compete for the contract, potentially valued at $3 billion.

A final request for proposals for LISC is expected to be released soon, with a contract award scheduled for the fourth quarter of the calendar year, according to Air Force officials.

One of the interesting aspects of the LISC procurement is the shifting alliances among the incumbent contractors and the four now-likely bidders. Currently, a team of Raytheon and CSC support Cape Canaveral; InDyne Corp. of Reston, Va. supports Vandenberg; and ITT Exelis of McLean, Va., provides sustainment at both sites.

The four likely LISC bidding teams are:

  • Consolidated Range Enterprise, whose members include Lockheed Martin Information Systems and Global Solutions of Gaithersburg, Md.; InDyne; and URS Corp. of San Francisco.
  • CSC of Falls Church, Va., which has joined forces with Honeywell Corp. of Morristown, N.J.
  • Raytheon Technical Services of Reston, Va., which is leading a team that includes General Dynamics of Falls Church, Va., ASRC Aerospace Corp. of Greenbelt, Md., ARES Corp. of Burlingame, Calif., Schafer Corp. of Arlington, Va. and Primus Solutions of Greenbelt, Md.
  • ITT Exelis, which is bidding with BAE Systems of Arlington, Va., and L-3 Communications of New York.

Also planned for this year are additional contracts to upgrade the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg, whose missions include space surveillance, space traffic management and launch support. Shelton recently said the upgrade to the center was a “long overdue” priority that needs to be protected in the tight budgetary environment. The center operates on a mainframe computer that has not had a major software update since 1994, he said.

Finally, by the end of the calendar year, Shelton said he expects the Air Force to award a contract on indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity hosted payloads. The Air Force hopes the long-discussed transition to hosted payloads will give more programs a chance to get into orbit faster and cheaper. The Air Force began querying commercial satellite operators for the initiative last year.

Other military space and missile defense procurements include:

  • A fixed-price contract award to Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., for the fifth and sixth Space Based Infrared System missile warning satellites. Lockheed Martin in October 2012 won an $82 million contract for the initial work on those satellites, including nonrecurring engineering and procurement of long-lead components. Congress has authorized the Air Force to spend up to $3.9 billion on the upcoming contract.
  • A contract from the Missile Defense Agency for medium-range target vehicles. Lockheed Martin is the only declared bidder for the contract, whose award is said to be imminent.
  • A contract from the Missile Defense Agency to begin construction of a site in Romania for U.S. missile interceptors under a program known as Aegis Ashore.

Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...