WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is reassessing its options for developing a new space-monitoring architecture after an independent review found problems with the acquisition approach, Defense Department officials told lawmakers March 15.

The Air Force for several years has been planning a major overhaul to the hardware and software systems used to analyze and combine space environmental data — including the tracking of orbital debris and monitoring space weather — at the Joint Space Operations Center (JSPOC) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The new architecture, known as the JSPOC Mission System (JMS), was to be developed by industry in a series of increments expected to be put under contract in the next few months.

“The [Defense] Department’s in the midst of reviewing that program assessment and determining the way forward for JMS,” Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said during a hearing of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.

Congress provided $87.4 million to initiate the JMS program in 2010. The service sought $132.7 million for the program this year, but Congress has been unable to pass any appropriation bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 and instead has been funding the federal government with a series of short-term bills that hold funding to 2010 levels. The Air Force’s 2012 request, now before Congress, includes $119 million for JMS.

About two weeks before the Air Force sent its budget request to Capitol Hill, the service issued a pair of solicitations for the first two JMS increments, the High Accuracy Catalog and Integration and Sustainment projects. The Feb. 2 call for proposals was limited to the 26 firms already on the Defense Information Systems Agency’s Encore 2 information technology contract vehicle. Two separate 27-month contracts were expected to be awarded in the summer.

On March 4, however, the Air Force notified prospective bidders that the solicitation was suspended.

Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), the subcommitte’s chairman, asked the assembled defense officials about the JMS program’s troubles and what Congress can do to ensure it stays on track.

Shelton said that as JMS was approaching Milestone B approval that would have allowed the service to issue development contracts, the program underwent an independent assessment. That assessment found “difficulties in the program” that gave the Air Force pause, he said.

“So at this point I couldn’t tell you what we need for the future in JMS,” Shelton said. “I think the Department’s going to take some time to study this.”

Air Force Undersecretary Erin Conaton assured the subcommittee that the service is “absolutely committed” to developing the JMS capability; it is just a matter of how it will go about it.

Several lawmakers pressed the Defense Department officials for more details on the new spacecraft acquisition approach that the Air Force is seeking congressional authority to implement next year. Under the new Evolutionary Acquisition for Space Efficiency initiative or EASE for short, the service would commit to buying additional quantities of operational satellites in blocks of two or more with fixed-price contracts. It would pay for each satellite over a span of five or six years instead of paying for a satellite almost entirely in a single budget year. Additionally, the Air Force would also commit to steady research and development funding so that new capabilities can be inserted into production satellites when they are mature.

Buying satellites one at a time is an inefficient use of taxpayer money and leads to instability for the industrial base, Conaton told lawmakers. And because production satellites can cost $1 billion or more, paying for an entire satellite in a single year puts unnecessary pressure on the entire space portfolio and can cause other programs to be deferred. She stressed that the new approach was carefully conceived based on analysis by the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation Office.

If Congress signs off on the new acquisition approach, the Air Force would implement it next year for the first time with the Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications system. The service would buy a block of two satellites from prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif.

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) asked about the progress being made by the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office, which has a mandate to develop space capabilities quickly and cheaply. The office received $133.8 million in 2010, and the budget request the Air Force submitted to Congress in February would provide it with $86.5 million in 2012, $76.4 million in 2013 and $52.7 million in 2014.

The ORS Office was stood up about four years ago, and it has made “baby steps” in that time, Shelton said. In the coming months, the office will launch its first operational satellite, ORS-1, and the TacSat-4 satellite that also may be used operationally. The big lessons will come from those satellites, Shelton said.

“We’re probably another year or two out before we’ve determined a good way ahead for ORS.”