The Three Dimensional Expeditionary Long Range Radar will replace the AN/TPS-75 system, seen here, for the US Air Force. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The US Air Force is set to expand its radar capabilities by awarding a pair of major contracts by early summer.
The larger contract is for the Space Fence program, which will dramatically increase the Pentagon’s ability to track debris in low-Earth orbit.
The smaller but still key Air Force radar system set for a contract award this summer is the Three Dimensional Expeditionary Long Range Radar (3DELRR) program, which will replace the aging AN/TPS-75 system as the “grab and go” radar used in the field.
The Space Fence program has been hailed as critical to America’s space capabilities, with Gen. William Shelton, the outgoing head of Air Force Space Command, calling it a “high priority” for the command, “and I think for the nation in terms of space situational awareness” in a 2013 speech.
That’s because the Pentagon estimates it tracks only 5 percent of the roughly 500,000 objects floating in space, much of that uncontrollable “space debris” that needs to be monitored to avoid collisions with US assets. An Air Force press release claims the program will be able to “detect, track and measure an object the size of a softball orbiting more than 1,200 miles in space.” The program makes up one of the larger new lines for research, development, test and evaluation in the Air Force’s 2015 budget request, at $214 million.
Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, the two competitors in the program, should find out who emerges victorious soon, according to Steve Bruce, vice president for Advanced Systems at Lockheed’s Mission Systems and Training business.
“The plan right now is to award by the end of May,” Bruce said. “The [operational] date would be in 2018 for Site 1. It’s a pretty reasonable schedule. It’s a development program with the biggest radar ever built, so I wouldn’t claim it’s easy, but it’s pretty reasonable. I’d say it’s low risk.”
Lockheed’s offering is built from existing technology, Bruce said, which helps with costs and meeting the service’s schedule.
“Space Fence will provide the US Air Force with enhanced space situational awareness and is vital to our national security,” Raytheon spokesman Michael Nachshen wrote in an emailed response to a request for comment. “Raytheon is confident of our solution and looks forward to the Air Force’s decision.”
Shelton had planned to offer an award on the program last year, but was delayed while the results of the Strategic Choices and Management Review were finalized. That led to an additional $70 million in costs, according to testimony from top Air Force acquisition officials in October.
Bruce downplayed cost jumps from the delay.
“I would say, in general, the system is the same as it was a year ago,” he said. “There is certainly some inflationary pressure because of time, but I would say there is no significant change in capability or cost.
“The only change was in the delivery dates,” Bruce continued. “The start date changed, obviously, the end date changed, and then the funding profile, they just updated. ... So those were the only changes, things they just had to change because time went by. Otherwise, there were no changes in requirements, no real changes in statement of work or anything else.”
The heart of the Space Fence program is a large S-band radar on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. That location was chosen due to its proximity to the equator, which provides the widest angle for an east-west directed radar. With the Earth’s rotation, the stationary radar creates a “fence” that will cover the entirety of space over the course of a day.
The fence will replace the Air Force Space Surveillance System, which consists of three transmitter stations and six receiving stations across the southern portion of the US. That program was mothballed last year in a budget reduction move.
The Air Force also wants to invest in a second site in Australia, but cost concerns have put that on hold.
“The first site is designed with the second site in mind,” Bruce said. “So think of it in terms of our control interface. It’s set up to allow one sensor to talk to another sensor. All of the software is designed so that when you get a task into the Space Fence system, you can figure out which sensor that task would go to.
“The primary contract line item for this contract is Site 1. Then the contract had an option for Site 2. It’s a price option. We also have priced options for interim contract support. The plan for the Air Force is Site 1 goes in, it becomes operational, the contractor supports it for two years, and then the timing of it right now is when the first site becomes operational, the second site becomes awarded.”
Neither Lockheed nor Raytheon would speculate on this specific issue, but the timing of the decision would line up nicely with the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., on May 19-22. Doing so would create a splash for the Air Force — and whichever company is the winner.
As for 3DELRR, the Air Force intends to award a contract by the third quarter of this year, followed by a critical design review by the end of the first quarter of 2015, low-rate initial production in early fiscal 2018 and initial deployment by fiscal 2020.
Lockheed, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman are vying to produce the radar.
The winner of the competition will develop 35 systems for the Air Force, a relatively small number. But company officials have noted there is a robust international market for ground-based radars, and just as other nations want the same planes being used by American forces, an Air Force selection will give the eventual winner a major leg up on the competition.
In fiscal 2015 budget documents, the Air Force notes the US Marine Corps is considering using 3DELRR as a replacement for its AN/TPS-59, opening another potential market.
Raytheon and Lockheed declined to comment on 3DELRR. A Northrop official called the service’s funding request “consistent” with the request for proposal issued in November. ■