WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is ready to award a long-overdue contract for its next-generation space-object tracking system, but the project is being held up due to a Pentagon review of its major acquisition programs, the service’s top uniformed officer for space said at a breakfast here July 16.

Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Sensors of Moorestown, N.J., and Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems of Tewksbury, Mass., have developed competing designs for the next-generation Space Fence, a system of ground-based radars that would be capable of tracking greater numbers of smaller objects than the current system.

Award of a full-scale development contract had been expected in 2012 or early 2013, but in April, Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, hinted that the $3.5 billion project might be delayed.

During a July 16 breakfast here at the Capitol Hill Club, Shelton said the Space Fence has been swept up in the Defense Department’s Strategic Choices and Management Review. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the department-wide review to examine major projects under scenarios in which Pentagon spending is cut by $100 billion, $300 billion and $500 billion during the next decade.

“We’re ready to award” the contract, Shelton said. But “the award is being held up while it’s being determined if it’s a priority for the Department.”

Shelton emphasized that he believes the Space Fence is a priority, but said delaying the contract award pending the review’s outcome is “smart management.” The Defense Department does not want to award a contract, only to have to terminate the work shortly thereafter, he said.

The Air Force is waiting for clearance from Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, to award the Space Fence contract, Shelton said.

Meanwhile, engineers at Eglin Air Force base in Florida are looking for ways to improve the current Space Fence as a contingency plan should the Pentagon elect not to go forward with the next-generation system. Those improvements, he said, would still leave the Air Force with capabilities that fall well short of that which is planned for the next-generation Space Fence.

The Space Fence is not the only major space-related program at a crossroads as the Air Force looks to reduce spending in the years ahead. The service is examining new architectures for its current space capabilities, some of which could entail dispersing payload sets among a larger number of smaller satellites, a concept known as disaggregation.

“We’ve got to make decisions in the next year or so to get where we want to be by the 2020s,” Shelton said.

Chief among those decisions concerns GPS-3, the Air Force’s next-generation positioning, navigation and timing satellite system.

Currently the Air Force has eight GPS-3 satellites either fully or partially under contract with Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems, and the service earlier this year signaled its intent to order another 12 from the incumbent contractor.

But Shelton said the GPS-3 program’s future is a “question mark,” and that the service may look to try out “alternative architectures” for space-based navigation.

That statement appears to reinforce comments Shelton made at a House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee hearing in May. In response to questioning, he said the Air Force had the option to buy another 12 GPS-3 craft or move on to a new generation of satellites and that the issue would be studied in the fall.

During the July 16 event he suggested that not every GPS satellite needs to carry a nuclear-detonation detection payload, as is the case today.

Shelton said the first couple of GPS-3 satellites will launch before the associated ground system is ready. The system, being developed by Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services of Garland, Texas, has been “having a little trouble,” he said.

Shelton also mentioned two other programs as candidates for disaggregation: The Space Based Infrared System for missile warning and the Advanced Extremely High Frequency secure communications satellites.

“Does it make sense to go on the path we’re on?” he said. “We’ve got to find alternatives that are much more resilient and certainly affordable.”

Disaggregation advocates have argued that dispersing missions among larger numbers of smaller spacecraft makes these capabilities less vulnerable to attack.

Shelton also gave updates on two other space programs:

  • The the Air Force faces a decision on the future of the Space Based Space Surveillance System. The current satellite is expected to reach the end of its life in 2017 and as of now the Air Force has no follow-on program planned. “We’re working hard to wedge that into the ‘15 budget,” he said.
  • The way the Pentagon buys bandwidth satellite from commercial providers in certain cases is “absolutely the most expensive way to do it,” he said. “What we don’t think is a smart thing to do is how we’re doing it now,” he said.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.