U.S. Air Force Sets March 2014 Target for Space Fence Award

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force will award an overdue contract for its next-generation space-object tracking system in March 2014, more than a year later than originally planned, according to an Aug. 15 memo.

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, which is slated to be shut down in September.

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

In a memorandum for industry posted Aug. 15 on the Federal Business Opportunities website, the Air Force said “due to budgetary constraints” the government would amend its original solicitation for the Space Fence program to reflect a new funding profile and target date for initial operational capability date.

A new request for proposals is expected to be issued in November 2013 and a new contract award is anticipated the following March, the memo said.

The upgraded Space Fence has been a top priority for Air Force leaders, especially after the service opted to shut down the current version, formally known as the Air Force Space Surveillance System.

Consisting of a line of VHF radars stretching across the southern United States, the current Space Fence is a key component of the overall U.S. Space Surveillance Network, which includes other ground and space based sensor assets. The Air Force recently confirmed plans to mothball the current system, saying the move will save $14 million annually and suggesting it would not compromise overall space surveillance capabilities.

On July 16 Shelton said the Air Force was ready to award the contract for the next-generation system. But he said the project had been swept up in U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s  Strategic Choices and Management Review, under which the Pentagon examined scenarios under which its spending is cut by $150 billion, $250 billion and $500 billion during the next decade.

Shelton emphasized then that he believed 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.

That Strategic Choices and Management Review has since been completed.