The U.S. Air Force is considering buying a payload for its next generation of missile warning satellites directly from the current subcontractor, rather than through the prime contractor on the program, according to sources familiar with the program.

Purchasing the payload for the third Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High spacecraft directly from Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems of Azusa, Calif., would enable that company to keep its payload team together while Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., focused on the integration of the first two satellites, a program source said.

However, two industry sources said

Pentagon officials have been increasingly frustrated with Lockheed Martin’s performance on the program, particularly in the wake of flight software issues that surfaced in early 2007, and one source said that a direct contract with Northrop Grumman could be interpreted as a vote of no-confidence in Lockheed’s ability to manage the effort.

Tonya Racasner, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, said that “several alternative acquisition strategies were analyzed” for the SBIRS High effort. Lt. Gen. Mike Hamel, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center and program executive officer for space, will brief Defense Department officials on the way ahead in late February, she said in a written response to questions on Feb. 11.

declined to comment further. Tom Delaney, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems, declined to comment.

Steve Tatum, a Lockheed Martin spokesman, deferred to the Air Force for comment on the SBIRS High acquisition strategy.

Tatum said the company is making “steady progress” on the program. The first spacecraft is expected to undergo environmental testing shortly, is on track for a planned launch in late 2009, he said.

The company also is integrating the spacecraft structure for the second satellite with its propulsion subsystem, and the payload is undergoing final testing at Northrop Grumman’s facilities in preparation for delivery to Lockheed Martin in June, Tatum said.

“Overall, the focused application of Lockheed Martin talent and expertise is yielding positive results and we are confident in our path forward to successfully deliver this important capability and sustain the on-orbit missile surveillance satellite constellation,” Tatum said. “Lockheed Martin is steadfastly committed to mission success and exemplary execution on SBIRS and we continue to work closely with the Air Force and industry partners to ensure this essential national security program is deployed as quickly as possible to aid our warfighters.”

The first SBIRS High geosynchronous satellite initially was scheduled to be

launched in 2002, but is not expected to launch before late 2009, largely due to technical difficulty that has forced several restructures of the effort.

Lockheed Martin currently is under contract to provide two geosynchronous satellites, and two payloads to be hosted by classified satellites in highly elliptical orbits, and the Pentagon anticipates buying at least two more of each.

One defense expert said that the Pentagon might be making a mistake if it elects to deal directly with Northrop Grumman. Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank, said

the Space and Missile Systems Center likely lacks the technical expertise and resources to play a greater oversight role in programs like SBIRS High.

The Space and Missile Systems Center still has not recovered from turning over an increased portion of responsibility of oversight of space programs to its contractors in the 1990s, Thompson said. While the center has extended the length of tours for its program managers, it has not yet rebuilt its in-house expertise, he said.