The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) might

rethink its acquisition strategy for an operational constellation of missile warning satellites due to delays in getting the project off the ground, according to the agency official overseeing the program.

Doing so could

open up the competition to build the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) Follow-On satellites, according to Air Force Col. Christopher Pelc, MDA’s STSS program manager. Those satellites

previously were known as STSS Block 12.

MDA had hoped to have those satellites under contract in 2006, but the work has been slowed due to difficulty securing funding both within the Pentagon and from Congress.

The agency had planned to award a sole-source contract to Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif., to build the satellites, but

currently is reviewing its options, Pelc said in a Jan. 8 interview.

“We owe it to ourselves to reconsider whether sole source is still the right direction,” Pelc said. “I don’t know that anything will change, but two years is a long time to sit on our hands.”

No work is planned on the follow-on satellites in 2008.

Congress cut MDA’s $332 million request for the overall STSS program by $100 million –

the entire amount planned for the follow-on effort – in the 2008 Defense Appropriations Act. T

hat cut

forced program officials to focus on the launch of two demonstration satellites planned for this summer, Pelc said. Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor on the STSS demonstration satellites, which also feature payloads built by Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems of El Segundo, Calif.

MDA expects the demonstration payloads to be ready for launch aboard a Delta 2 rocket in July, but a busy manifest at Cape Canaveral could push them into October, Pelc said. The STSS demonstration satellites may have to wait behind NASA’s Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope and two GPS satellites, he said.


also is planning to launch a classified STSS experiment

April 17 aboard a Delta 2 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. That mission is intended to demonstrate advanced technology for future use in supporting missile defense missions like the STSS Follow-On satellites, Pelc said.

The sole


contract award to Northrop Grumman would have involved the company holding an open competition for the STSS Follow-On payloads, something that

has been on hold due to the funding constraints, Pelc said.

Northrop Grumman and MDA have done some trade studies and technology development in previous years for the follow-on satellite, focusing less on capability improvements from

the demonstration satellites, and more on developing a system that can be manufactured efficiently and reliably, Pelc said.

The exact number of follow-on satellites in the operational constellation is classified, but it

likely will be seven to 12 satellites, depending on the location of the orbital deployments, Pelc said.

In addition to cutting funding for the STSS Follow-On effort, Congress also used the 2008 appropriations bill to direct MDA to find a federally funded research and development center to study the path forward in this area. That study is supposed to include

options for using the satellites to monitor other objects in orbit.

MDA is working with officials in the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics to choose

a center to lead the work, which

likely will begin in the next month or so, Pelc said.

While MDA will focus on the missile tracking mission, it could take steps to improve their ability to contribute to space situational awareness by using a slightly larger sensor aperture or focal plane if that

also could benefit the primary purpose of the satellites, Pelc said.

The STSS demonstration satellites that launch this year might

also be able to contribute to space situational awareness, Pelc said. Those satellites might

not be able to spot

targets as small as the Space-Based Visible sensor on the Midcourse Space Experiment satellite is able to spot.

MDA launched the Midcourse Space Experiment in 1996 as a part of a missile tracking demonstration. It since has become the Air Force’s primary space-based capability for watching

what goes on in space, he said.

However, the STSS demonstration satellites will give Air Force Space Command a chance to examine what space-based infrared sensors may have to offer to space situational awareness, Pelc said.

Bob Bishop, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman, said in a written statement that the company is in the final stages of integration and testing with the two STSS demonstration satellites. Northrop Grumman is “confident that our experience base will provide the MDA with the unique and invaluable expertise required to expeditiously deploy an operational system” with the follow-on satellites, he said.