William LaPlante, assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force Credit: DoD

WASHINGTON — The sequestration-driven delay in awarding a contract for the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation space-object tracking system will add more than $70 million to the program’s cost, a top service acquisition official told lawmakers Oct. 23.

William LaPlante, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee that the automatic across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration would hurt the service’s modernization efforts. He cited the Space Fence, a planned ground-based radar system that will dramatically improve the ability of the Department of Defense (DoD) to track objects in Earth orbit, as a prime example.

“The Space Fence contract was ready for award in early June; however, a DoD-level review driven by sequestration, delayed the decision to proceed into later in 2013,” LaPlante said, according to his written testimony. “With an affirmative decision in November, initial capability will slip about one year and costs will increase by over $70M.”

In August, the Air Force announced it would award the long-overdue contract for the Space Fence in March 2014, more than a year later than originally planned. A new request for proposals for the program is expected to be issued in November. In the meantime, in a notice dated Sept. 16, the Air Force said it anticipates awarding up to two firm-fixed-price contracts lasting 5.5 months. Lockheed Martin and Raytheon plan to bid on a possible bridge contract under which the Air Force would fund demonstrations of the system’s operational flexibility.

Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training of Moorestown, N.J., and Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems of Tewksbury, Mass., have developed competing designs and prototypes for the new Space Fence, which would be capable of tracking greater numbers of smaller objects than current U.S. space surveillance assets.

The Air Force has spent at least $1.3 billion on the project since 2006, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The Space Fence, a follow-on to the now-mothballed Air Force Space Surveillance System, is among the service’s most important space-related modernization programs. Space surveillance has been accorded a high priority in the space community as the orbital environment becomes increasingly congested with working satellites and man-made debris.

“Space is also an important domain where we have to keep steady progress,” LaPlante said. “Modernization is not optional; it is required to execute core missions against future high-end threats. In short, we cannot afford to mortgage the future of our Air Force and the defense of our Nation.”

While he focused primarily on the effects sequestration and a continuing resolution are having on Defense Department acquisition and modernization efforts, LaPlante also addressed the impact of the recent government shutdown, saying the Air Force acquisition workforce lost more than 1.9 million man-hours of productivity and that work with industry was “severely” disrupted.

LaPlante warned that the double-barreled impact of sequestration and a continuing resolution could lead smaller companies to give up on Air Force business out of frustration with the now-crippled planning process. Already, from fiscal year 2012 to 2013, the service saw its small business obligations drop 19 percent, he said.

“Some may decide to just close their doors, while others may decide to exit the Air Force market and no longer maintain the technical expertise and status as qualified sources,” he said. “In either case, the costs associated with finding and qualifying new sources will further complicate an already complex situation.

Additionally, LaPlante said, the Air Force has shrunk its science and technology program by $190 million due to sequestration. The service recently sent out notices to 150 contractors and universities regarding grants that had been terminated, delayed or  revamped. The Air Force often depends on that research to conceive and incubate next-generation space and missile applications.

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.