Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration Frank Calvelli speaks during the panel discussion at the Air and Space Forces Association 2024 Warfare Symposium in Aurora, Colo., Feb. 13, 2024. (U.S. Air Force photo by Eric Dietrich)

DISC24 — A joint effort between the Space Force and National Reconnaissance Office to track targets on the ground from the heavens is soon set to clear a key development milestone, the Space Force’s top weapons buyer said Tuesday — though he warned the program is at risk due to the ongoing budget impasse on Capitol Hill. 

After years of territorial squabble, the Department of the Air Force and NRO have recently been co-funding a project to develop satellite sensors that provide what’s known as Ground Moving Target Indication (GMTI), or near real-time tracking of targets on the ground like Russian tanks in Ukraine or Chinese warships in the Pacific. According to Space Force acquisition chief Frank Calvelli, that effort is expected to clear a Milestone B review by the end of next month, paving the way for the program to enter its engineering and manufacturing development phase.

“Milestone B is scheduled for the end of March. NRO is in great shape to do that program,” Calvelli said during the National Security Space Association Defense and Intelligence Space Conference in Reston, Va. After a recent meeting with the program’s team, he added he expects the Milestone B review will “go very smooth.” 

Still, Calvelli noted the GMTI program is a new start in fiscal year 2024, meaning Congress must pass the FY24 budget for it to move forward.

“What I need for that program is for Congress to pass a budget because it is a new start. And if we don’t get the budget passed, where we’re stuck in a CR [continuing resolution], we can’t do much with that program this year,” he said.

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The GMTI effort is critical to plug a gap left by the Air Force’s divestment of the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), an aging aircraft the service reasoned is not survivable in a contested environment. The Air Force’s planned E-7 Wedgetail fleet — which recently hit a snag in price tag negotiations with manufacturer Boeing — is expected to bridge the gap for some of those tracking missions as officials shift many of those capabilities to space.

Few details are available about the new GMTI sensors, though similar systems traditionally have consisted of radars that use a pulsing technique to discriminate moving targets from stationary objects and then measure the formers’ velocities based on their Doppler shift.

Schedules (Still) Slipping

Elsewhere in his speech, Calvelli ran down a rapid-fire list of program updates, highlighting two critical initiatives for the Space Force that have experienced recent schedule slips: delivering a payload for geosynchronous missile warning sats and finally finishing the long-troubled ground segment for military GPS users.

Though the Space Force plans to shift to a proliferated architecture in lower orbits for missile warning and tracking, in the meantime the service is moving forward with plans for a few large satellites in polar and geosynchronous (GEO) orbits known as the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared System (Next-Gen OPIR). Calvelli said a priority is to get the two polar birds on contract for production, while noting the sister GEO effort has some new schedule pressure.

The GEO program will begin satellite integration and test this year, though he flagged that “the mission payload’s about a year late. And making sure that payload serves up this spring and that we try to hold as much as the schedule together as we can is going to be really important to us.” Following the speech, Calvelli told C4ISRNET that further delays could put a 2025 launch date at risk. 

The GEO satellite’s payload is made by RTX, whereas the satellite itself is built by Lockheed Martin. Following publication of this report, Lockheed Martin Space Vice President of Warning Programs Michael Corriea said that the company is working to keep the 2025 launch date on track.

“Lockheed Martin is committed to delivering the first Next Gen GEO satellite to meet the Space Force’s planned 2025 launch date. To ensure that, we have been working closely with our payload provider, including having staff at their site, to help with payload integration,” he said. “The payload is scheduled to be delivered to Lockheed Martin this summer for integration with our space vehicle. In the meantime, we have re-sequenced space vehicle testing to help reduce overall production time while we wait for the payload.”

Calvelli also noted another schedule delay where he laid some blame on RTX: the years-delayed modernized GPS ground segment known as Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX). Originally supposed to come online between 2011 and 2012, OCX is now planned to be accepted by the government in the fall and will be ready to transition operations to Space Force users in May 2025, Calvelli said. The Pentagon’s chief weapons tester noted in a recent report that the system wouldn’t be ready for use until July 2025 at the earliest. 

“Lots of variables play to the delay, but it’s a prime example of what happens when you try to do a very, very large, complex software system,” he said.

Asked about OCX later on in the discussion and accountability for RTX’s performance, a visibly frustrated Calvelli was flummoxed, though he did not expressly name the company. 

“What I don’t get… [is] why would somebody want to have this sort of reputation-ruining stain in the papers all the time?” he pointedly asked an audience of government and industry attendees.

“Why wouldn’t a company just put their best and brightest on it, make sure they have all the IT environments they need and get this thing off the books? I mean I don’t understand how people think sometimes,” he continued. 

Noting that an audience across the industrial base reads headlines about those delays, he added, “And then that company is now tied to not being able to do software development. Wouldn’t you want to just fix that and get it done?”

In response, an RTX spokesperson told Breaking Defense “The reality today is that the GPS OCX program is near completion, and in collaboration with our customer we have dedicated the resources, technology and personnel to deliver this capability to the Space Force in 2024.”

UPDATED 2/29/24 at 9:06 AM ET with comment from RTX.