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Air Force Launches New Project to Update Missile-Warning Ground Software
Airmen at the Global Strategic Warning and Space Surveillance System Center at Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, monitor strategic missile warning systems.
Credit: Air Force

WASHINGTON — Air Force officials are talking to potential vendors this week about an upcoming project to update the software used to control the military's missile-warning satellitesand to analyze the data beamed from space.

The ground-based systems are the less exciting but nonetheless important piece of the SBIRS space-based infrared surveillance satellites that provide initial warning of a ballistic missile attack on the United States, deployed forces and allies.

The plan is to shift the current ground software architecture — a closed system developed by traditional defense contractors that is not compatible with commercial software from competing vendors — to an open-systems platform that the Air Force would own and update with new technology as it becomes available. [How Ballistic Missiles Work (Infographic)]

The project is called "future operationally resilient ground evolution," or FORGE. It is part of a broader $173.5 million SBIRS modernization plan. And it is one of several projects where Air Force hopes to attract nontraditional vendors that can bring fresh ideas and cutting-edge products.

The "space enterprise consortium," overseen by the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, is hosting a conference with potential vendors this week in El Segundo, California. Interest in the FORGE program has been so strong that the consortium had to cut off registration for one-on-one meetings.

"Due to overwhelming interest," not everyone who requested a meeting will get one, said a posting on the consortium's website.

The enthusiasm may be a sign that companies believe the Air Force is about to shake up the status quo in some of its major space programs. FORGE and other projects managed by the consortium will test the rhetoric of Air Force leaders who have promised to open the market to commercial businesses and startups. In this case, the Air Force will create a common software framework that will be owned by the government but where companies will be able to host software applications.

The ground software associated with SBIRS, like other major military space systems, is costly and increasingly difficult to update, according to government and industry officials. Because it is not an open architecture, the Air Force is not able to insert fresh software on a regular basis.

Rockets and ballistic missiles share a common past. <a href="">See how ballistic missiles work in our full infographic</a>.
Rockets and ballistic missiles share a common past. See how ballistic missiles work in our full infographic.
Credit: Karl Tate, contributor

The plan is to migrate SBIRS mission management, telemetry, tracking, and satellite ground control to a "command-and-control common platform" enterprise. The Air Force will use commercial contracting methods, known as "other transactions authority," or OTA, to fund prototype designs of a common framework. The other portion of the FORGE program will focus on software to analyze and disseminate the data provided by the SBIRS satellites.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for SBIRS. Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems is the payload integrator. The 460th Space Wing at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, operates the system.

The space enterprise consortium has been mentioned by senior Air Force officials as proof that the service is opening up opportunities for newcomers that thus far have been shut out of the military market.

The Space and Missile Systems Center funded the consortium under a $100 million OTA agreement. Membership costs $7,500 per year for large companies and $500 per year for small businesses. About 40 companies so far have joined.

An industry official told SpaceNews that the reviews of the consortium generally have been positive. Commercial companies for years have been disappointed by the military's procurement and contracting processes that tend to favor incumbent companies. A case in point is a highly touted Air Force effort to acquire hosted payloads from the commercial sector. The program came under heavy industry criticism for awarding far fewer contracts than promised.

The OTA agreements usually require that the vendor fund a portion of the project. To prevent established defense companies from buying their way into every project, the contracts require participation by nontraditional suppliers. The bidder has to prove that a nontraditional space company plays a significant role.

Als through the consortium, the Space and Missile Systems Center has published a solicitation for microsatellites intended to operate in high-Earth orbit that would cost less than $5 million each. This project will be highly watched by the small-satellite industry as an indicator of how the service will procure products from the commercial market. SMC would use small satellites to design a "flexible spacecraft architecture" for missions like communication, overhead persistent infrared, precision navigation and timing, weather and space situational awareness.

The potential use of small satellites for the overhead persistent infrared mission — currently performed by SBIRS — should be of interest to advocates of moving away from large expensive satellites that make for "high value" targets to U.S. enemies. U.S. Strategic Command commanding general John Hyten said he was disappointed that the Air Force already is making plans to build a new missile-warning constellation similar to SBIRS that would be deployed in 2029. Hyten said it is imperative that "we go faster."

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.