WASHINGTON — The Air Force has selected two contractors to begin work on a new missile-warning constellation.

The Air Force on Friday announced it will award two sole-source contracts to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman for the next-generation overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) program. Lockheed Martin will develop the geosynchronous orbit satellites and Northrop Grumman will work on the polar system.

The GEO contract will be sole-sourced to Lockheed Martin Space to “define requirements, create the initial design and identify and procure flight hardware for a satellite to operate in geosynchronous orbit,” said an Air Force news release. The second contract will be sole-sourced to Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems to define polar system requirements. Lockheed also will be responsible to conduct a payload competition.

The next-generation OPIR will succeed the current Space Based Infrared System. The Air Force wants improved missile warning capabilities that are more survivable against emerging threats. The plan is to launch a new system by 2023.

The Air Force will use “rapid procurement authorities” in this program and is targeting the first next-gen OPIR launch in 2023. “This establishes an aggressive goal of cutting four years off the current procurement process and supports the service’s commitment to field new capabilities at the speed of relevance,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in a statement. “As we develop these new systems, speed matters. The next generation missile warning satellite will be a pacesetter.”

Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics said: “This is an important system for the nation, and to ‘go for the gold’ by targeting five years instead of nine years allows us to pick up the pace to defend the nation.”

The Air Force is the lead agency for procuring next-gen OPIR satellites. The Space and Missile Systems Center’s Remote Sensing Systems Directorate at Los Angeles Air Force Base, California, is the acquisition program office.

The precise value of the contracts was not immediately available. According to sources, the next-gen OPIR system would include a minimum of three GEO and two polar satellites.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...