'Mind-blowing' satellite tracker, F-35A price drop; Who's backing Space Force; and more

U.S. defense officials have long warned that Russian satellites have been maneuvering around America’s own satellites — but seeing it happen in 3D is a rather mind-blowing experience.

There was Russia’s mysterious Luch satellite parked right next to an Intelsat satellite. Not far away was a U.S. Air Force WGS communications satellite, floating in a three-dimensional view of spacecraft in geostationary orbit tens of thousands of miles above earth. That visualization was provided by ExoAnalytic, a California-based satellite tracking company, at their booth at this week’s Satellite 2019 conference in Washington.

ExoAnalytic, which does work for the U.S. government, keeps tabs on spacecraft with dozens of earthbound telescopes. They focus not on low-Earth orbit, which is becoming increasingly crowded by small commercial satellites, but on GEO, where most U.S. military satellites reside.

For me — someone who is far from a technical space expert, but regularly writes about changes to Pentagon space policy — ExoAnalytic’s demonstration helped explain why America’s space operators are so concerned.

They worry that Russia or China could easily disrupt these high-flying navigation or communications satellites, many which are essential to everyday life. There’s fear that maneuver spacecraft could listen to, jam, blind or even physically ram one of these incredibly expensive satellites.

Defense officials are often constrained in what they can say about military activities in space, because much is classified — including the tools they use to keep tabs on others’ spacecraft. But as the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.


You’ve reached the Defense One Global Business Brief by Marcus Weisgerber. Three days, two trade shows, as I’ve spent the week bouncing between the Navy League’s Sea Air Space and Satellite 2019. Send your tips and feedback to mweisgerber@defenseone.com or @MarcusReports. Check out the Global Business Brief archive here, and tell your friends to subscribe!

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Northrop to Test New Rocket

Northrop Grumman is planning to test fire the first stage of its new OmegA rocket, which the company is pitching to the Air Force, which is evaluating new launch systems. The solid-fuel rocket is being prepped in its test stand for that test later this month in Promontory, Utah. The company is planning to test its second stage in August, said Kent Rominger, Northrop Grumman vice president of strategic programs.  

“We’re really pleased that we are on schedule,” Rominger said in an interview at the Satellite conference. “We have been hitting out milestones really since 2015.”

OmegA is not reusable, unlike rockets being pitched by SpaceX and BlueOrigin.

“The system was absolutely designed to meet the needs of the national security space [launches],” Rominger said.

Speaking of that launch system competition, the Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office on May 3 released a request for proposals for two launch service providers. The effort, known as “Launch Service Procurement,” or LSP, will be for rockets used in launches through 2027. The majority of national security space payloads are currently launched on Atlas V or Delta IV rockets (both made by the United Launch Alliance) or SpaceX Falcon rocket. The Air Force wants the new launch providers’ rockets to be ready for carrying payloads to space by April 2022.

Space Force Supporters Pen Letter

Signatories of the open letter in support of the new branch of the military include former Defense Secretary William Perry, former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, former DNI Mike McConnell, former Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, former Air Force Secretary and NRO director Pete Aldridge, and retired Air Force Gen. Larry Welch, a former Air Force chief of staff.

Something You Don’t Hear Every Day

A defense contractor is offering to turn over its data rights to the government. This has been a contentious issue because such rights typically guarantee companies lucrative sustainment contracts. Sean Stackley, the former Navy acquisition boss who is now president of L3 Technologies Communications & Networked Systems segment, has a different view. “Our policy with the Department of Defense is: we’re going to make this easy for you. We’re going to give you our data rights,” Stackley said Tuesday at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space conference. “You buy our stuff, you get our data rights. We ask that you not hand it over to our competition. But you get our data rights, software, hardware for whatever purpose suits government purpose rights. No debate. Let’s make it easy.”

Finding its identity: In just over a year on the job, L3 CEO Chris Kubasik has been tearing down walls, transforming L3 from a holding company to a more traditional defense firm construct. L3 and Harris are expected to merge in the coming months. Kubasik views the company as “a non-traditional sixth prime,” and the company has been looking to specialize in certain areas, like unmanned underwater vehicles. It’s built up that business through acquisitions in recent years. One other area where the company hopes to make a name for itself: laser weapons and laser communications. L3’s Stackley pointed to four L3 companies: Brashear (beam pointing); KEO (optics); Wescam (EO/IR), SPD (power management). “World-class beam pointing, optics, power, now all of sudden we are a key provider for laser weapon systems,” Stackley said. “Whether it’s laser weapon system demonstrator, whether it’s Helios…we’re in.”

Saab to Open Indiana T-X Factory

The company plans to invest $37 million in the new facility at Purdue University-affiliated Discovery Park District in West Lafayette, Indiana. “The initial focus for the site will be aeronautical engineering; producing major structural sections and final assembly of the Saab parts of the T-X advanced jet trainer, developed by Boeing and Saab for the United States Air Force,” the company said in a May 8 statement. “Saab has entered into a partnership with the Purdue University, and through this intends to expand its U.S. based Research and Development within possible areas such as sensor systems, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems.” Boeing has said it would assemble the T-X pilot training jet in St. Louis.

Pentagon Wants to Change How It Buys Software

It’s 2020, but the Pentagon buys software like it’s 1987. A new Defense Innovation Board report is hoping to help bring the Defense Department’s software buying practices into modern times. You can check out the Software Acquisition and Practices Study here.

GAO’s Weapons Report

The annual report found that costs grew by $8 billion among the Pentagon’s 82 largest major weapon system programs — worth $1.69 trillion — despite a decade of major acquisition reforms. “[W]e found that costs continue to increase for many of these programs—even those that started after major acquisition reforms were adopted in 2010,” GAO said. “This is troubling because these reforms were supposed to limit cost growth.”

State Approves $7B in Foreign Sales

The State Department cleared five big foreign military sales on May 3.

  • Patriot missile defense system, largely made by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, for Bahrain. The deal could be worth $2.5 billion.
  • Patriot missile defense system, largely made by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, for UAE. The deal could be worth $2.7 billion.
  • Various missiles and bombs, valued at $750 million, for Bahrain’s F-16 Block 70 and F-16V fighters.
  • Twelve Lockheed Martin (Sikorsky) UH-60M utility helicopters for the Czech Republic. The deal could be worth $800 million.
  • Four Bell AH-1Z attack helicopters for the Czech Republic. The deal could be worth $205 million.

Mod Could Allow Boeing Interceptor to Engage Closer Missiles

Boeing has developed new software for its Ground-based Midcourse Defense interceptors — the ones in Alaska and California — that could allow it to shoot down missiles at closer ranges.

“We have developed a capability, it’s basically a software load, that would allow us to fly the booster [and] instead of burning all three stages and just burn two of the three stages,”

Paul Smith, Boeing vice president and program director, Ground-based Midcourse Defense, said Wednesday at a briefing at the company’s defense headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. “That has an advantage for us in terms of improving our battlespace. It means we can engage closer in to the launch site. That software has been developed and verified and we will be performing a flight test to prove that out.” Since the modification could be enabled through a software update, the interceptors would not need to be pulled out of their silos for modifications.

On Wall Street

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Leonardo Earnings: The Italian defense firm confirmed its 2019 guidance, expecting $14 to $15.2 billion in sales. The company booked $2.8 billion in new sales and had $3 billion in revenue with a $41 billion backlog.

Making Moves

The Senate on April 30 confirmed R. Clarke Cooper as assistant secretary for Political Military Affairs. In a May 6 email to Pol-Mil staff, he wrote, “The stewards within the Department of State Bureau of Political Military Affairs are uniquely integral to our national security and economic security. We colleagues engage the interagency, the Congress, our international partners, and the American people on policy making, enhance the execution and integrity of our security assistance and arms transfers, and enable the success of US foreign policy through defense cooperation.”

Air Force Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, has been nominated to become the head of Air Education and Training Command.

Air Force Maj. Gen. David Nahom has been nominated for his third star as deputy Air Force chief of staff for plans and programs. He’s currently the director of programs in the same office.

The Senate has confirmed Kimberley Reed (president), Spencer Bachus III, and Judith DelZoppo Pryor (members) of the Export-Import Bank’s board of directors.