The Air Force is developing plans to compete additional Global Positioning System (GPS) III satellites, starting with space vehicle 11, and hopes to have a request for proposals (RFP) out around 2018.

David Madden, director of military satellite communications directorate at Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (AFSMC), said Wednesday the service is crafting an acquisition plan for a “real” competition that will entice contractors to compete. Madden said he had a meeting Wednesday with Defense Department acquisition executive Frank Kendall to figure out how to make competition valuable for companies while ensuring the service can procure satellites at the right price.

Artist's illustration of a GPS III spacecraft. Photo: Lockheed Martin.
Artist’s illustration of a GPS III spacecraft. Photo: Lockheed Martin.

Madden said the impetus driving the Air Force’s GPS III acquisition strategy is its austere budget environment. In the old days, he told reporters, the service would give competing contractors “$500 million,” and they’d do their design work before the Air Force had a runoff and selected a winner.

“How do we get them far enough along…in their own investment, and try to keep that investment to a minimum so they can get a return on their investment quickly,” Madden said at a Capitol Hill breakfast hosted by Peter Huessy. “Otherwise, they won’t compete.”

Madden said the Air Force wants to be involved in the competition just enough to understand bidders’ designs, but not get in their way. He said he believes contractors can get to a critical design level a lot faster if the Air Force isn’t “side by side” with them all the way. He also said the Air Force is determining how many satellites it could buy at once to help make it a more “cost effective” model by spreading cost among multiple satellites. Madden said the service is unsure how many DoD will let it procure.

“What we’re concerned about is long-term cost,” Madden said.

It is also unclear exactly how many satellites the Air Force will compete, but Madden said the service only has authority to procure 12 satellites via sole source. Lockheed Martin [LMT], the GPS III prime contractor, was awarded in 2008 the contract for the GPS III non-flight satellite testbed (GNST) and the first two GPS III space vehicles with priced options for up to 10 additional satellites.

The company was contracted for space vehicles three and four in 2012, five and six in 2013, and seven and eight in 2014, Lockheed Martin said on its website. Madden said the Air Force had two more satellites it was “about to put on order” with Lockheed Martin for a total of 10 GPS III space vehicles. Potential bidders for competed GPS III satellites include Boeing [BA], which developed the GPS IIF series, and Northrop Grumman [NOC], which Madden said had a “lot of understanding” about GPS satellites. Neither company, nor Lockheed Martin, was able to comment by press time Wednesday.

The Air Force declined Wednesday to comment by press time.