The Pentagon has granted Lockheed Martin a $4.9 billion contract to build three missile-warning satellites for the U.S. Space Force. Parked in geosynchronous orbit, the next-generation satellites will warn of incoming threats from virtually anywhere in the world.
Jokes about the Space Force are still very much in vogue, but this latest news reminds us that this nascent branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, technically a department of the U.S. Air Force, has been assigned some rather important responsibilities. In this case, managing a small fleet of cutting-edge missile-warning satellites.
Known as the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (NG-OPIR) program, the system will provide an early warning of incoming intercontinental and theater (i.e. tactical) ballistic missiles. Per the new contract awarded yesterday, Lockheed Martin will manufacture, test, and deliver three NG-OPIR geosynchronous satellites and the requisite software, Defense Daily reports. The first launch is expected in 2025, and the company needs to fully complete the work and hand it all over to Space Force by 2028, according to SpaceNews.
The new allotment of funds represents the expected phase 2 follow-on contract for the project. Phase 1 of NG-OPIR began in August 2018, when Lockheed Martin received $2.9 billion to develop the three satellites. Lockheed Martin was chosen because the Air Force believed it stood the best chance of hitting the 2025 first-launch target, reports Defense Daily.
Northrop Grumman is currently building two other missile-warning satellites, which will be placed in polar orbit. Together, the five satellites will comprise the OPIR Block 0 architecture, which is expected to come online in 2029. A Block 1 architecture is also planned, which will comprise five geosynchronous satellites plus the two polar orbit satellites.
The current system of defense satellites, called the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), was also built by Lockheed Martin, and it’ll be phased out over the next several years. The NG-OPIR system “will succeed the current Space Based Infrared System by providing improved missile warning capabilities that are more survivable against emerging threats,” according to the Air Force.
Indeed, this added feature—that the satellites will be “more survivable against emerging threats”—is in response to prior criticisms made about SBIRS and other U.S. space-based assets. In 2017, General John Hyten, the current vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, complained about America’s defense satellites, describing them as “big, fat, juicy targets” for anti-satellite weapons.
Several countries, including Russia and China, are in possession of anti-satellite weapons, which played a non-trivial role in prompting the formation of the Space Force. In 2019, India surprised the world by deliberately shooting down one of its own satellites.