Air Force Stays the Course on Ground System Procurements

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WASHINGTON — Although budget pressures have forced the U.S. Air Force to cancel plans for a new space surveillance satellite, the service appears to be moving full steam ahead with ground system procurements that will support its space situational awareness mission.

The cancellation of the Space Based Space Surveillance follow-on satellite, intended to keep tabs on objects in geostationary orbit, leaves no large competitive satellite procurements on the Air Force’s plate, at least in the near term. But there is plenty of activity on the ground system side, including a large contract award for a space surveillance radar that could come at any time, according to Air Force budget documents.

In a separate effort, meanwhile, the Air Force is requesting $8.5 million to begin installing a C-band space surveillance radar in Australia, one of the few new starts slated for next year. The project, to be co-funded by Australia, was hatched by an agreement signed in November by then-U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his Australian counterpart, Stephen Smith.

The radar, currently located in Antigua, will be moved to Australia in 2015 and modified for the space situational awareness mission, according to budget documents. Contract award is slated for 2014, the documents said, noting that a mix of experienced companies, along with federally funded research facilities and Air Force resources, will be applied to the effort.

But the scale of that project pales in comparison with that of the new Space Fence, an S-band radar system that will enable the Defense Department to track golf ball-size objects in space, primarily in low Earth orbit. The Air Force is requesting $377 million next year for the program, a big increase over the current-year budget level.

Lockheed Martin Mission Systems of Moorestown, N.J., and Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems of Tewksbury, Mass., have developed competing designs for the Space Fence, which in concert with other assets will help increase the number of tracked orbital objects from roughly 20,000 today to 100,000, according to budget documents. To date, the Air Force has paid the companies about $142 million apiece for their design and prototyping work, the documents said.

The budget documents put a nearly $1.8 billion price tag on Space Fence development, including expenditures to date. Air Force cost estimates for the entire program have ranged as high as $3.5 billion.

Award of the long-delayed prime contract to build the system appears imminent, the documents indicate. Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, warned April 9 that the contract could be deferred because of budget pressures, but other service officials have since said the program is a priority.

Lockheed Martin Chief Financial Officer Bruce L. Tanner said during a conference call with investors that the Space Fence was among the big-ticket contracts the company expected to sign in the second quarter.

The current Space Fence consists of a line of VHF-band radars stretching across the southern United States. The new Space Fence will consist of two sites, one at the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific and another that according to the budget documents is still being negotiated with the host nation.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is preparing a competition for sustainment engineering on a complementary network of missile warning and space surveillance sensors, both radar and optical. The Sustainment and Modification of Optical and Radar Sensors (SMORS) program will continue work currently performed by ITT Exelis Information Systems of Herndon, Va., under the System Engineering Sustainment and Integrator contract, according to an Air Force procurement notice.

According to the notice, published on the Federal Business Opportunities website, the recently approved SMORS acquisition strategy calls for awarding six indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts with a total funding ceiling of $2 billion over a seven-year ordering period. A draft request for proposals is expected in October, with a final solicitation to follow in February 2014, according to a “Notice to Prospective Offerors” posted April 8.

Data from these and other space surveillance assets feed into the Joint Space Operations Center (Jspoc), which provides military authorities with a comprehensive and dynamic picture of the space environment. The Air Force is requesting $59 million next year for an ongoing system overhaul known as the Jspoc Mission System.

“The program will provide a collaborative environment that will enhance and modernize space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities; create decision-relevant views of the space environment; rapidly detect, track and characterize objects of interest; identify/exploit traditional and non-traditional sources; perform space threat analysis; and enable efficient distribution of data across the space surveillance network,” budget documents say. The upgrade program will enable the Jspoc to take on missions currently performed by the aging Space Defense Operations Center, whose components in most cases are beyond their design lives and which uses hardware that is no longer vendor supported, the documents say.

The Air Force will be fielding the Jspoc Mission System in a series of increments involving multiple contractors. “The acquisition strategy reflects new principles that address the speed, agility, and adaptability required for successful IT acquisition resulting in a tailored incremental acquisition approach to deliver early and often by leveraging mature industry capabilities and taking advantage of previous Government investments in Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) and Government lab prototyping efforts,” the budget documents said.