Rendering of part of Raytheon's Space Fence monitoring apparatus. Credit: Raytheon

WASHINGTON — Executives from the two companies competing to build the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation Space Fence, a ground-based space-object tracking system, have said they believe the long-overdue contract award is coming soon, despite the uncertainty surrounding the program.

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

Award of a full-scale development contract had been expected in 2012 or early 2013, but on July 16, Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said the multibillion-dollar project is being held up due to a wide-ranging Pentagon review that includes major acquisition programs.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the Pentagon-wide Strategic Choices and Management Review to examine major projects under scenarios in which defense spending is cut by about $150 billion, $250 billion and $500 billion during the next decade. Some of those cuts would “bend” the U.S. plan for national defense, he said; others would “break” parts of the strategy.

At a press briefing here July 31, Hagel said the review’s purpose is to help the Defense Department plan for the possibility that the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration stretch into 2015 and beyond. The review will present Defense Department leaders and President Barack Obama a menu of options.

Even with drastic cuts, Hagel said, the Defense Department would still face substantial shortfalls to meet sequestration numbers.

Hagel said the options could include canceling modernization programs and, in a worst-case scenario, a “decade-long modernization holiday.” He was not specific about which programs might be affected.

Hagel outlined two long-term strategies to reshape the Defense Department in the future: a large military that struggles to maintain a technological edge or a smaller military that stays on technology’s cutting edge.

Meanwhile, executives from both Raytheon and Lockheed Martin discussed the Space Fence project during recent conference calls on their respective quarterly earnings.

“Basically, I’ve said, they are ready to go,” William H. Swanson, Raytheon’s chairman and chief executive, said July 25. “They’ve made their selection, and they can award. I think part of the internal …  review that [the Defense Department] had, they’re going to go through and determine what they’re going to do in this regard.

“As an engineer, I look at what Space Fence is trying to do when I think of the debris that’s up in space, and I think of all the assets, whether they be commercial satellites, whether they be the space station, whatever is up there for any country, people need to map that debris and be able to move things out of the way, because I’ve got to tell you, losing a satellite or damaging the space station will pay for a Space Fence really quickly. But people have to make the decision.”

Shelton said the Air Force is tracking some 23,000 objects in Earth orbit and estimates that the actual number of orbiting objects is closer to 500,000.

Bruce Tanner, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Lockheed Martin, also mentioned Space Fence during that company’s quarterly earnings conference call July 23. He said the company is keeping an eye on a number of competitive awards planned for the third quarter of 2013, including the Space Fence.

Shelton has said the Space Fence is a top priority for the Air Force Space Command.

But already, members of the House’s Appropriations Committee have suggested trimming the 2014 budget for the Space Fence by $50 million because of a one-year schedule delay.

As a contingency plan, if the contract is not awarded,  engineers at Eglin Air Force base in Florida are looking for ways to improve the current Space Fence. Those improvements, Shelton said, would still leave the Air Force with capabilities that fall well short of those planned for the next-generation system.

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.