Artist rendition of a Space Based Infrared System satellite. Credit: U.S. Air Force

WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin has been awarded a $2.9 billion Air Force contract for three missile-warning satellites known as next generation overhead persistent infrared.

The Air Force already had released in May a “notice of intent” to award two sole-source contracts to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman for the next-generation OPIR constellation but the actual amount of the contract was not revealed. The announcement on Tuesday confirms that Lockheed Martin Space Systems, in Sunnyvale, California, will be responsible to manufacture three geosynchronous earth orbit space vehicles, to be completed by April 2021. Northrop Grumman was selected to develop the polar orbit satellites.

The next-generation OPIR will succeed the current Space Based Infrared System. The Air Force wants a new missile warning constellation that would be more survivable against counter space weapons being developed by China and Russia.

The Air Force will use “rapid procurement authorities” in this program and is targeting the first next-generation OPIR launch in 2023.

The Air Force is the lead agency for procuring next-generation OPIR satellites. The Space and Missile Systems Center’s Remote Sensing Systems Directorate at Los Angeles Air Force Base, California, is the acquisition program office.

Legislation passed in 2016 gives the military license to expedite the procurement of next-generation satellites. SMC is using these authorities to buy five missile-warning satellites from Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. The new satellites will be somewhat similar to the SBIRS spacecraft it will replace but they will have modernized buses and sensors. The Air Force has said there will be a separate industry competition for the sensor payloads.

Lockheed Martin spokesman Chip Eschenfelder said the company will be “working closely with the Air Force on the rapid development of next gen OPIR’s more advanced, resilient missile warning capability. We understand the need to ‘go fast’ while improving our national security posture against emerging threats around the world.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...