GPS 3 satellite (Lockheed Martin)

WASHINGTON — Air Force officials predict more than one company will step up to challenge Lockheed Martin for the production of up to 22 GPS 3 satellites.

“Our goal is to issue a request for proposals in the very near future,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, California.

“The market research we’ve done over the past couple of years clearly indicates there is strong and viable competition in the market,” Thompson told reporters Thursday at the Pentagon. “I think there are many vendors interested in that competition.” He suggested Boeing and Northrop Grumman are likely bidders.

Lockheed Martin is under contract to deliver 10 satellites. The next production lot is expected to be for satellites 11 through 32, worth about $10 billion.

But before the Air Force can move forward it needs a green light from the Pentagon’s joint requirements oversight council, a panel of senior officials that vets every major military procurement. Until the “capability development document” is approved by the JROC, the Air Force will hold off on issuing an RFP, Thompson said. He expects the review to be completed by the end of the year. “There is always a chance something will come up,” he said. “I really would like to get that RFP out but I have no desire to put one out there and then have to modify it because of a change in the CDD.”

Thompson said Lockheed, as the incumbent, has a “fair competitive advantage” but will have to fight to keep the work. The company’s past performance troubles could hurt its chances. “We wouldn’t be doing a competition if we didn’t think there was a viable alternative to the current Lockheed Martin system.”

The Government Accountability Office said the program suffered major delays due to failure to qualify a key component provided by subcontractor Harris Corp. Since the baseline estimates were revised, each satellite is likely to be delivered between six to 15 months behind the original schedule.

“Past performance is one of those things you’re allowed to evaluate” when selecting a contractor, said Air Force Col. Steve Whitney, head of the Global Positioning Systems Directorate at the Space and Missile Systems Center.

The first Lockheed-made GPS 3 satellite was declared “available for launch” in Denver last month, and is expected to be ready to go into orbit in 2018. The company has invested in major upgrades to the assembly line and insists the problems with the satellites are behind.

In preliminary studies ahead of a future competition, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman each designed a concept for GPS 3 satellites 11 through 32. “We think there are multiple designs that are viable,” said Whitney. “But we believe all companies will require some development work.”

Thompson cited GPS as an example of a new way of doing business in military space. The Space and Missile Systems Center executes about $6 billion a year worth of contracts. Thompson is a career procurement executive, having run some of the Pentagon’s largest programs, including the F-35 fighter and the KC-46 refueling tanker.

The mantra today is “we have to go faster,” said Thompson. He has moved to simplify the paperwork and eliminate unnecessary documentation. He also is encouraging all program officers to do more experiments and prototyping. The military space business is being challenged to innovate as threats grow, he said. “Our systems are built for a benign space environment,” stressed Thompson. “We want in seven to 10 years to be able to fight in space. We need systems that can be resilient in a contested environment.”

The GPS 3 program has not only had problems with the satellites but also with the ground-control system known as OCX, for next generation operational control system.

The $3.5 billion OCX has been a “historically troubled program,” taking much longer and costing far more than projected, said Thompson. He sounded especially frustrated by the performance of OCX and prime contractor Raytheon. “It takes a considerable amount of the department’s time to oversee the performance of the contractor on OCX,” he said. “When I say ‘the department,’ I’m talking about very senior leadership.” Three times a year a team of top officials drops in to check on the program. “In September we had Undersecretary of Defense Ellen Lord, Air Force Undersecretary Matt Donovan, Air Force Space Command’s Gen. John Raymond in separate sessions with the contractor tracking the progress of this program,” said Thompson. “We’ll continue to do that, including assessing alternatives if this program fails or doesn’t meet the expectations of this department.”

Two years after the program was restructured, Raytheon in September delivered the OCX block 0 “launch check out system” and the Air Force has accepted it. “This is cautiously optimistic news,” Thompson said.

The OCX seeks to develop a new satellite command and control system to support the GPS 3 constellation. The restructuring has delayed OCX initial operations until 2021, meaning that initial GPS 3 satellites in orbit will have to use older signals until OCX is ready.

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...