WASHINGTON, Sept 25 (Reuters) - Keen to avert another protest, the U.S. Air Force on Thursday said it has asked chief Pentagon arms buyer John Young to review its evaluation process in a multibillion dollar communications satellite competition.
“We want to be as thorough as possible in this source selection if there is a protest. We want to be sure that we’ve done everything possible to win a protest, that we don’t make any errors,” Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary for space programs, told a breakfast sponsored by the Space Foundation.
He said the Air Force was doing its own careful reviews of the Transformational Satellite (TSAT) competition between Boeing Co (BA.N) and Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) to build a group of advanced military communications satellites.
In addition, he said he had asked Young’s staff to conduct “an independent scrub of our evaluation processes.”
Protests of major defense contracts have become increasingly common as the big companies vie for fewer larger deals, encouraged to some extent by recent decisions by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office that have been critical of Air Force acquisition processes in particular.
The Air Force had hoped to award the TSAT contract this month, but says it now hopes to pick a winner by Dec. 15 at the earliest. Payton did not rule out the possibility that the decision could slip into early next year.
He said the schedule had slipped because of budget changes made necessary after completion of a study that looked at the military’s satellite communications needs, and the extra vetting to protest-proof the competition.
The TSAT contract also is linked to another big program, the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite program, run by Lockheed, which has exceeded congressional caps on cost growth after Congress added a fourth satellite to the program.
That could lead to the program’s termination, unless it is certified as essential for national security reasons.
TSAT is intended to follow AEHF and shares some of the same protected communications job. Congress added the fourth satellite due to concerns about a gap in providing satellite communications capability to troops if TSAT got delayed.
Payton said the Air Force had asked Young to finish his certification of the AEHF satellite program by mid-October, so it could be included in the Pentagon’s 2010 budget proposal.
The Air Force also was pressing ahead with a program to develop a “good-enough” space-based radar to track moving targets from space, and field it by 2012, Payton said. He said the accelerated schedule pointed toward a commercial solution, rather than a long military development project.
He said the Air Force had asked industry for information on what was available, and had spent $5 million buying commercial radar products from Canada’s RADARSAT-2, but he wanted to sample products from other providers as well.
He said no decision had yet been made on whether the government would seek to own and operate the satellites itself or purchase services from a commercial provider.
The Space Radar program, once envisioned to cost $34 billion through 2025, has been scaled back severely after lawmakers raised cost and technology concerns. Payton gave no budget details about the current program.
Payton said overall military space programs were improving after years of cost overruns and schedule delays, but there were continuing software problems with the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellite program run by Lockheed.
Contractors are also working to resolve several problems with rockets used to launch satellites into space, but Payton said he did not expect a delay in any of upcoming launches. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; editing by Carol Bishopric)