BOSTON — The U.S. Air Force is poised to pick prime contractors to build new navigation and communications satellites in the year ahead and also might award contracts for work on alternatives to its next generation of missile warning satellites.
As it makes decisions on next-generation systems, and continues work on satellites that are well along in development, Air Force officials are trying to ensure that their space programs receive the technical rigor that was often lacking on efforts that began in the 1990s, said Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, which procures spacecraft and launch vehicles.
The Air Force had expected to award the prime contract for the next generation of GPS satellites last year. However, those contracts are now expected in early summer 2007 because the Air Force’s effort to shift the GPS 3 program to the service’s new block acquisition approach took longer than expected, Hamel said in a Nov. 7 interview.
The service wanted to ensure that it laid a strong foundation both for the initial batch of GPS 3 satellites, known as Block 3A, and the more capable satellites that will follow, Hamel said.
The service expects to issue the formal request for proposals for the GPS 3 satellite shortly, and to choose a single contractor by next summer, Hamel said. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., and Boeing Integrated Defense Systems of St. Louis are competing for the contract to build the GPS 3 satellites.
The first GPS 3 satellite currently is scheduled to launch in 2013, though the Air Force recently began encouraging contractors to target an earlier date.
The Air Force is pursuing the development of the GPS 3 ground equipment separately from the space segment in an effort to find the most innovative software and networking capabilities, Hamel said. The Air Force will likely choose two contractor teams next spring. Each team will spend about 18 months developing prototypes that can be put through their paces before the service makes a final decision on the prime contract, he said. Industry teams are still forming for that competition, Hamel said.
The Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) Communications System is another major contract that could be awarded in 2007. Hamel said he expects the contract for the laser-linked satellites to be awarded near the end of the year.
Lockheed Martin and Boeing are leading teams competing to build the T-Sats, which are expected to begin launching around 2014.
Missile Warning Satellites
Other contracts that could be awarded in 2007 include work on an alternative to the troubled Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High missile warning satellites that are being built by Lockheed Martin.
The Air Force began pursuing the Alternative Infrared Satellite System (AIRSS) after its most recent restructuring of the SBIRS High program due to technical difficulty and cost growth.
In a Dec. 12, 2005, memorandum, Pentagon acquisition chief Kenneth Krieg recommended capping the planned purchase of SBIRS High satellites at no more than three, as opposed to the five satellites that had previously been planned.
However, recent work on the SBIRS satellites has progressed well, Hamel said. While he noted that no decision has been made yet on the matter, the Pentagon could choose to buy four or more satellites from Lockheed Martin, and defer the upgrades envisioned with (AIRSS), he said.
The Air Force expects to award system definition contracts for the AIRSS system Dec. 4. Those contracts are expected to be worth about $70 million, according to a Space and Missile Systems Center developmental plans official.
The Air Force had awarded contracts this fall to Raytheon Co. and SAIC to develop prototype sensors for the Alternative Infrared Satellite System. Those contracts are focused on ground testing, but the Air Force is considering the possibility of a flight demonstration involving those payloads, Hamel said.
The contract for building the spacecraft platform for the flight demonstration could be worth around $100 million, and could be awarded at some point in 2007 if the concept wins the approval of senior Pentagon leaders, according to a Space and Missile Systems Center official. The spacecraft for the flight experiment would likely be based on a commercially available satellite platform, according to an industry source.
In 2008, the Air Force could award $2 billion worth of system development contracts for the operational AIRSS satellites, the Space and Missile Systems Center developmental planning official said.
While the concepts envisioned for AIRSS , including more current technology than SBIRS and the ability to stare at areas of interest on a nearly continuous basis are attractive, the current stability of the SBIRS effort could make it less important to move immediately to the new system, Hamel said.
The Air Force is unlikely to award contracts in 2007 for the development of small satellites that can be launched on short notice like the TacSat series, Hamel said. The service will spend 2007 focusing on the launch of the first three satellites in the TacSat series, he said. While he declined to discuss details of the services plans for 2008, Hamel said the budget request will support a “strong, ambitious program.”
Another military space program that could feature significant contract awards in 2008 is the Missile Defense Agency’s effort to develop a space-based missile defense test bed. However, that work, as well as other programs across the Defense Department, could face a tougher battle for dollars inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill due to several factors, including the shift of control in the House and Senate from the Republicans to Democrats, industry and congressional sources said.
Those sources expect the Pentagon to begin tightening its belt in the near future, perhaps as early as 2008, resulting in less money for all programs, including space.
A number of defense programs could be facing declining budgets if the military bows to congressional pressure to account for the cost of current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in its annual budget request, rather than submit separate requests for supplemental funding to cover war costs, the sources said.
Space programs lost a strong ally on Capitol Hill when Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Penn.), an influential member of the House Armed Services Committee, lost his bid for re-election.
However, while Weldon has been known as a strong advocate for military space systems during his tenure in Congress, his replacement is no stranger to the topic. Weldon was defeated by his Democratic challenger, Joseph Sestak, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral who gave strong testimony in favor of the Space Radar system before the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee in March 2005.
Republicans like Weldon have been the strongest advocates for space-based missile defense, and debate on the issue has generally broken down partisan lines. However, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, who is now in line to take over the panel, said in a June 22 interview that Democrats will not necessarily attempt to block work on space-based interceptors and other space-based weapons.
Sources said one likely outcome of the Democratic takeover might be a stronger push from Congress for more realistic tests of the missile defense system that require interceptors to deal with countermeasures. But that is also something Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who resigned Nov. 7, also had requested.
One military space development program that could be particularly vulnerable due to the increased budget pressure is the Space Radar program, which is intended to help the military spot moving targets on the ground and provide high-resolution imagery to the intelligence community beginning around 2015. Industry, congressional and Pentagon sources say the effort continues to suffer because the military and intelligence communities cannot agree on requirements for the system or how the satellites will be controlled — a contention challenged in an Oct. 25 press release from Chad Kolton, a spokesman for John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence.
Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are leading the teams competing for the prime contract to build the Space Radar satellites. That contract is expected to be awarded in 2008 or 2009, according to an industry source. Continued disagreement between the military and the intelligence community, coupled with budget pressure, could delay that award, and possibly lead to termination of the space radar effort, industry sources said.
Brett Lambert, managing partner of the Densmore Group, a Washington-based consulting firm, said that regardless of whether defense spending shrinks under a Democratic Congress , congressional scrutiny of the Pentagon’s performance on major programs is likely to increase beginning with the Defense Department’s submission of its 2008 budget request in early 2007.