WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is racing to kick-start its new accelerated program to buy next-generation missile warning satellites, awarding a contract on Aug. 14 to Lockheed Martin for the first three satellites in the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared program.

The award, which has a value of up to $2.9 billion, will allow Lockheed to do the design work, flight hardware procurement, early manufacturing and risk-reduction work necessary for a critical design review, the service said in a statement. Lockheed is set to provide the three geosynchronous Earth orbit satellites in the Next-Gen OPIR constellation.

"As we develop these new systems, speed matters," Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a statement. "We are focused on providing a missile warning capability survivable in a contested environment by the mid-2020s."

More specifically, the Air Force has said it plans to launch its first Next Gen OPIR satellite in 2023, two years earlier than its original plan to begin fielding the replacement for the Space Based Infrared System, or SBIRS, which called for first launches in 2025.

Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, was one of the biggest critics of the Air Force’s original procurement strategy for a next generation SBIRS. In December, he called the service’s plan to field the new constellation by fiscal 2029 “ridiculous” and said it could be done faster.

Then, at Space Symposium this April, Wilson announced that the service would use prototyping to speed up the procurement timeline for Next Gen OPIR. Although the design of the satellites is still in flux, Wilson noted that companies could leverage mature sensors and a common satellite bus to accelerate development.

The new procurement strategy seemingly has had two major impacts to the program so far: the earlier first launch date, and the addition of a second satellite manufacturer in Northrop Grumman, which has been tapped to provide the polar orbit satellites. The Air Force had originally envisioned sole-sourcing the entire constellation to Lockheed.

The Next-Gen OPIR constellation will give the service an improved missile detection capability while being more survivable against potential threats, the service stated in its news release.

"The joint team requires a defendable and resilient architecture," said Gen. Dave Goldfein, the Air Force’s chief of staff. "People and integrated capabilities that strengthen agility, readiness and lethality in the joint fight are paramount.”

Although the final terms of the contract announced Wednesday have not yet been settled, a May notice of intent to sole-source the contract to Lockheed noted that a cost-plus incentive fee vehicle was anticipated.

The Air Force also intends to sole-source the first two polar orbit satellites of the Next Gen OPIR constellation from Northrop, according to a May presolicitation. A contract for requirements definitions of those satellites is impending.