GPS 3. Credit: Lockheed Martin

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force budget request for 2013 includes funding to develop the capability to launch two GPS 3 navigation satellites aboard a single rocket, a senior service official said.

Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said GPS 3 prime contractor Lockheed Martin and rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA) submitted a plan in January for dual launches starting with the fifth and sixth GPS 3 satellites in 2017. The launches would be performed by ULA Atlas 5 rockets.

ULA is developing a dual-launch adapter for its own use, Shelton said March 22 at a Defense Writers Group breakfast here. “We are driving mostly toward GPS,” he said. ULA is driving to a more general capability to do dual launch for even commercial business.”

Denver-based ULA, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, launches nearly all of the U.S. government’s operational and scientific satellites. The company’s primary rockets are the Atlas 5 and Delta 4.

All GPS satellites to date have launched one at a time, primarily aboard ULA’s Delta 2 rocket, which has been phased out by the Air Force. The Atlas 5 and Delta 4 are much larger vehicles.

Lockheed Martin executives believe dual launches would save the Air Force millions of dollars on GPS launch and constellation sustainment costs, according to Michael Friedman, a company spokesman.

GPS 3 is the Air Force’s next generation of navigation, positioning and timing satellites featuring improved accuracy and signal power for jamming resistance. The first of the satellites is scheduled for launch in 2014.

Meanwhile, Shelton disputed a government watchdog agency’s report that says the GPS 3 program is 18 percent over budget.

“We are on schedule, on target with that program,” Shelton said. “There is no question in my mind that that program is going extremely well. I understand from maybe a bean-counter perspective that it may look like an increase but I don’t see it that way.”

In a report released March 21, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the cost of the GPS 3 satellite program is significantly higher than original projections. The report cited problems with the GPS 3 navigation and communications payloads and spacecraft platform, and various programmatic inefficiencies, as the reason for the cost growth.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver in 2008 was awarded a $1.46 billion GPS 3 development contract that included the production of the first two satellites.

Shelton said that the service has not finalized the unit cost for the first two satellites.

Lockheed Martin announced Jan. 11 that the company will begin production of the third and fourth GPS 3 satellites under a $238 million contract modification awarded by the Air Force.

Shelton said GPS 3 is a development program and that the government has made changes that could represent a cost increase. These types of changes are usually made because the government discovers issues that were not anticipated when the contract was signed, he said.

The GPS 3 program is “not even close” to a Nunn-McCurdy breach, Shelton said, referring to a law that requires the Pentagon to notify Congress of programs that experience cost growth of 15 percent, and to recertify those whose costs climb by 25 percent.

In an email, Christina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the GAO, said the 18 percent cost growth estimate is the difference between the current and original projections for completing development and building the first two satellites. “There were two current estimates given to GAO — one from the program office of $1.6 billion and one from the contractor of $1.4 billion,” she said. “We used the $1.4 billion to calculate the 18 percent.”

In a telephone interview, Chaplain, said it is important to closely watch costs on programs like GPS 3. “Otherwise, we won’t find something out until it is too late,” she said.

Chaplain said there is no cause yet for alarm on GPS 3. Generally speaking, she said, the “program is doing the best it can and we still believe they are following good practices.”

The Air Force has budgeted about $1.3 billion for the GPS program in 2013, including $559 million for program procurement, which includes the purchase of two additional GPS 3 satellites, according to budget documents.