Gen. William Shelton said he expects a contract award for the Space Fence in April 2014. Credit: U.S. Air Force
Gen. William Shelton said he expects a contract award for the Space Fence in April 2014. Credit: U.S. Air Force

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department has signed off on Air Force plans to release a revamped request for proposals for its delayed next-generation space surveillance system, the service’s top uniformed officer for space said Nov. 21.

Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said in a speech at the Air Force Association’s Pacific Air & Space Symposium in Los Angeles that he expects a contract award for the Space Fence, a system of ground-based radars that would significantly expand the number of objects being tracked in Earth orbit, in April 2014.

“We have now been given the go-ahead to release that modified [request for proposal] and begin our acquisition program again for the Space Fence,” Shelton said, according to a transcript of his remarks made available Nov. 25. “Hopefully we’ll have that on contract in the April time frame, and that will represent about a one-year slip in the program because of the delay here, but nevertheless we’ll get a very good sensor that will help us keep track in a much-larger-volume sense and a much-better-resolution sense of the traffic in low Earth orbit.”

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. The Air Force had planned to award a prime contract for the next-generation, multibillion-dollar system this year, but funding issues, including sequestration’s across-the-board budget cuts, forced the service to postpone its selection.

Word of the delay followed the Air Force’s acknowledgment this past summer that it would shut down its earlier-generation space fence, formally known as the Space Surveillance System. The service has been relying on other existing sensors until the next-generation system becomes available.

The modified request for proposals on the project is expected to include a new funding profile and target date for initial operational capability. In August, Air Force leaders said they expected the Pentagon to award the delayed contract in March 2014.

William LaPlante, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told a House committee in October that the delay has added more than $70 million to the program’s cost. The Air Force has spent at least $1.3 billion developing the program since 2006, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Shelton, using the movie “Gravity” to highlight the importance of space situational awareness in his speech, also noted service plans to deploy two sensors in Australia as part of its orbital surveillance efforts. In the near term, the Air Force is relocating a C-band radar from Antigua to Australia to keep tabs over the Pacific region. The second sensor is an optical telescope developed by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and tested at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

Shelton characterized the optical telescope as a “wonderful capability” that makes “great volumes of observation at night. We’re going to take that telescope and move it down to Australia as well and give us some great capability in that part of the world in monitoring activity of particularly in geosynchronous orbit.”

The Pentagon also hopes to eventually utilize data from other orbital surveillance assets owned by countries like Japan, which operates a radar tracking system as well as an optical telescope capable of watching objects in geosynchronous orbit.

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.