The twin radomes of the Colorado Tracking Station at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, part of the Air Force Satellite Control Network. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Don Branum

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has formally asked industry for input on the possibility of outsourcing the on-orbit operation and maintenance of its Wideband Global Satcom communications satellites, according to a Sept. 9 post to the Federal Business Opportunities website.

The request for information is one of the first steps to commercialize some of the service’s satellite operations and transfer others to a new common ground system. The changes are a top priority for Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, who has preached the message for months.

Air Force officials have previously said they hoped to commercialize WGS system operations in 2016. The purpose of the request for information is “to gather industry’s estimates of start-up and operation cost, timeline for going operational, and ability to provide the necessary capabilities,” the document said.

Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California, is the prime contractor on the WGS program. To date, seven of a planned 10 WGS satellites are in orbit.

Already, WGS launch support, in-orbit checkout and other tasks are handled at a Boeing facility, Air Force officials have said.

Currently the Air Force relies on the Air Force Satellite Control Network, based at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado, to operate large constellations like WGS and GPS. This facility is run by Air Force personnel with contractor support.

But the service is in the midst of a top-to-bottom review of its satellite ground infrastructure that is driven largely by budget constraints and emerging threats from China and Russia. The service wants to use uniformed space personnel more for battle management tasks, as opposed to routine satellite maintenance operations, and also envisions saving money by reducing costly infrastructure.

Hyten and other Air Force officials have discussed outsourcing WGS operations as a pathfinder for doing the same with other constellations, specifically the GPS positioning, navigation and timing satellites.

Industry responses to the solicitation are due Oct. 26.

Commercial satellite operators such as Intelsat of McLean, Virginia, and Luxembourg employ just a small fraction of the staff the Air Force traditionally uses to fly satellites. In addition, Air Force officials have said, the service spends time and resources training its personnel to operate satellites only to see them move to unrelated jobs a few years later.

This year, a top Air Force space acquisition official said that for the amount of money the Air Force is paying just to sustain the WGS constellation, the service could have a commercial operator both sustain and fly the satellites.

Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems is the prime contractor on the WGS program. To date, seven of a planned 10 WGS satellites are in orbit, including WGS-4 (above). Credit: Boeing

Meanwhile, the Air Force continues to struggle with another satellite ground system, the Operational Control Segment, or OCX, which will be used for GPS 3 satellites, the first of which is slated to launch in May 2017.

During a press briefing Sept. 15 at the Air Force Association’s annual tech expo here, Bill LaPlante, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said the OCX program was one that was “not out of the woods” despite a recent restructuring of the prime contract.

Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services of Dulles, Virginia, was awarded an $886 million contract in 2010 to develop OCX, which is expected to provide better cyberprotection and information assurance than the current GPS ground system. OCX also is intended to automate various functions, presumably freeing up Air Force personnel to perform other tasks.

A report from the Government Accountability Office released Sept. 9 said the program is now expected to cost about $2.15 billion and has been delayed by nearly four years.

Raytheon and Air Force officials have acknowledged that completing the information assurance element of the software, a key requirement, has taken longer than expected.

Hyten said during a press briefing here Sept. 16 that the Defense Department was willing to turn to another contractor if Raytheon continues to struggle.

“We will not allow ourselves to fail if OCX fails,” Hyten said. “ We will look at alternate options. … I’ll have backup options.”

Hyten added, however, that senior Pentagon acquisition officials still believe “OCX is the right answer.”

The Air Force has said it could purchase a temporary ground system capability for its GPS 3 satellites from Lockheed Martin if delays on the system continue. Specifically, the service is worried about its ability to integrate the first GPS 3 satellite into the existing constellation.

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.