The U.S. Air Force plans to make one of the plums of the 2006 space contracting year, the next-generation GPS satellite navigation system, a model for future satellite procurement, according to a senior service acquisition official.

The GPS 3 procurement will incorporate the acquisition reforms proposed by a number of expert panels to address the cost growth and delays that have plagued most major space programs in recent years, said Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel, commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. The center is the Air Force’s procurement shop for satellites and rockets.

Gen. Lance Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command, has challenged the center to turn its performance record around and become a model for acquisition across the Pentagon, Hamel said in a Nov. 3 telephone interview. GPS 3 is being groomed as the “flagship” of that effort, he said.

The center likely will issue the formal request for proposals to build the GPS 3 satellites within the next few months , with a prime contract award expected later in 2006 , Hamel said. The leading candidates for the work are Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., and Boeing Co. of Chicago, both of which have built prior generations of GPS craft.

The GPS 3 satellites, intended to be far more resistant to jamming than those in operation , are expected to start launching in 2013.

In accordance with the recommendations of various space acquisition panels — in particular the one led by former Lockheed Martin executive A. Thomas Young — Space and Missile Systems Center has beefed up its systems engineering on programs like GPS 3, and is bringing back technical specifications and standards that fell out of vogue in the 1990s, Hamel said. Officials at the center also are exploring contract incentives to better encourage successful work, he said.

The GPS 3 procurement also will adopt the conservative approach espoused by Air Force Undersecretary Ron Sega, Hamel said. “Sega wants the procurement to have the highest probability of success, so we’d probably look to ensure we don’t over-commit on performance,” Hamel said.

The first batch of GPS 3 satellites are expected to be more capable than the GPS 2F series now being built, but not as dramatically as in the past, according to sources following the program. The initial production contract likely will be worth roughly $1.5 billion and include 12 satellites, the sources said. New capabilities would be added to subsequent batches of satellites in keeping with the Pentagon’s technology insertion strategy known as spiral development, the sources said.

Other awards to look for in 2006 include the next batch of launches under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Lockheed Martin and Boeing previously competed for EELV launches , but the Air Force announced in April that the next block of missions, dubbed Buy 3, would be split evenly between the companies to help both remain in that business.

Buy 3 also will differ from previous EELV awards in that the 23 launches will be allocated over the next four years rather than all at once, according to Air Force Col. John Insprucker, director of the EELV program office. Buy 3 will begin in December with awards to launch the Air Force’s first Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellite and a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, Insprucker said Nov. 8 in a written response to questions.

One major contract award that had been slated for late 2006 but which now faces delay is the Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) communications system. The Air Force requested $836 million for T-Sat in 2006 , but the 2006 Defense Appropriations Act now being finalized by Congress likely will reduce that figure by $400 million.

Teams led by Lockheed Martin and Boeing are competing to build the T-Sat satellites.

But even if the contract award and 2013 first launch date for the T-Sat satellites shift to the right, the Air Force might press ahead with the T-Sat ground segment , Hamel said. The Air Force is in the midst of evaluating proposals to build the T-Sat Mission Operations System, and likely will award the contract shortly, Hamel said.

Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Co. of Waltham, Mass., and Northrop Grumman Corp. of Los Angeles are leading teams competing for the T-Sat ground segment contract .

Looking beyond 2006, some industry officials worry that a fiscal belt-tightening expected as the government tries to pay for the war and hurricane relief efforts could take its toll on military space programs.

Gordon England, acting U.S. deputy defense secretary, sent a memo to Pentagon agencies Oct. 19 directing them to find ways to reduce planned spending in 2007. The Air Force was directed to trim its planned 2007 budget — estimated at $109 billion when the service sent its 2006 spending request to Congress in February — by $2.1 billion.

But Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a think tank here, said space advocacy is strong enough within the Air Force that satellite programs will not be disproportionately affected by the reduced spending profile. The biggest threat to military space spending lies with U.S. lawmakers, whose frustration with satellite delays and cost growth can translate into funding cuts, he said.

Thompson said missile defense-related space programs do not appear to enjoy the same level of support as the others.

An Oct. 26 memo signed by David Altwegg, the Missile Defense Agency’s deputy director for business management, indicates the agency plans to delay work on the Space Tracking and Surveillance System missile tracking satellites, as well as a space-based interceptor test-bed.

The agency planned to spend $167 million in 2007 and $440 million in 2008 on the missile tracking satellites when it sent its 2006 budget request to Capitol Hill , but the Altwegg memo proposes reducing those levels by $70 million in 2007 and $130 million in 2008.

The Missile Defense Agency does not plan to seek money for the test-bed until 2008, and the memo does not address the $45 million proposed for that year or the $150 million in 2009. But it trims $82 million from the $248 million projected in 2010 , and zeroes the $230 million planned for 2011.