GPS 3 satellite. Credit: Lockheed Martin

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force plans to order two more GPS 3 satellites under its existing contract with Lockheed Martin but envisions putting subsequent positioning, navigation and timing satellites up for bid, according to briefing document obtained by SpaceNews.

In addition, the Air Force intends to buy just one GPS satellite — be it from Lockheed Martin or some other contractor — in 2017 rather than the three that are included in the current budget blueprint, according to the document.

The new plans are expected to be formally announced Feb. 2, when the White House was expected to unveil its budget proposal for 2016.

Currently Lockheed Martin is under firm contract to build eight GPS 3 satellites, the first of which is slated to launch in 2016. The contract includes options for up to four more satellites.

The briefing document says preparations are “underway for production readiness competition to find lower cost solutions starting no earlier than” the 11th satellite.

The Air Force’s space acquisition arm said in June it is looking for possible challengers to Lockheed Martin to build the next batch of satellites. Northrop Grumman and Boeing are among the companies that responded to a call for contractors interested in building the service’s next batch of GPS satellites as well as providing a new navigation payload.

Some senior industry officials had privately questioned whether the Air Force will seriously consider an alternate bid or if the service is merely looking to light a fire under Lockheed Martin, which is behind schedule on the first batch of GPS 3 satellites.

That timetable would suggest that Lockheed Martin has the inside track for at least a couple of satellites beyond the 10th.
That timetable would suggest that Lockheed Martin has the inside track for at least a couple of satellites beyond the 10th.

According to the budget briefing document, the Air Force anticipates ordering the ninth and 10th satellites under Lockheed Martin’s existing contract and described them as “technical equivalents” of those now under firm contract.

After procuring one GPS satellite in 2017, the service would buy three satellites each in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 — these are called for in the current budget — as well as three satellites in 2020, the briefing documents show. The builder of these satellites remains to be determined, but the service still characterizes them as GPS 3 craft.

In its June 4 “sources sought” notice, the Air Force said it plans to award up to two contracts, valued at $100 million to $200 million, to design production-ready GPS satellites to compete against Lockheed Martin’s GPS 3 model. The Air Force said it would hold a competition in 2017 or 2018 for a fixed-price contract to build up to 22 follow-on navigation satellites, the first of which must be ready to launch in 2023.

That timetable would suggest that Lockheed Martin has the inside track for at least a couple of satellites beyond the 10th.

Boeing built the platform and major payload components for the current-generation GPS 2F satellites and has been steadily reinvesting in its GPS technology in recent years. Boeing also is one of three companies that received contracts in January 2013 to study how to improve the accuracy, coverage and efficiency of GPS using smaller satellites.

Northrop Grumman Aerospace of Redondo Beach, California, is a subcontractor on the GPS 3 program and has already delivered deployable antenna sets for the first six satellites. The antennas are being manufactured by Northrop Grumman’s Astro Aerospace division, which specializes in unique deployable antennas.


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.