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Lockheed Team Chosen to Begin Satellite System

Aerospace: The $1.8-billion Air Force project is designed to protect against long- and short-range missile attack.

November 09, 1996|JAMES F. PELTZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A team of companies led by Lockheed Martin Corp. was picked Friday to build the first phase of a new satellite-based system designed to protect the country against long- and short-range missile attack.

The Air Force awarded the team, which also includes Aerojet's operations in Azusa, a $1.8-billion contract to build the first five satellites for the Space-Based Infrared System, which will provide early warning of enemy missile launches.

"This is a great day for us," said K. Michael Henshaw, president of Lockheed Martin's missile and space group in Sunnyvale, Calif.

But it was a stinging defeat for the other team vying for the contract, led by Los Angeles-based Hughes Electronics Corp. and TRW Inc., whose space operations are based in Redondo Beach.

TRW has been the prime contractor for the nation's current fleet of missile-defense satellites--called the Defense Support Program--since the program was launched nearly three decades ago. The Air Force declined comment on why it chose one team over the other.

"Obviously we're disappointed," said TRW spokeswoman Sally Koris. But she said the loss would not result in layoffs in Redondo Beach because other strong programs have led TRW to aggressively hire new workers in recent years.

A spokeswoman for Hughes' space group, Fran Slimmer, said Hughes likewise will keep adding jobs despite the loss, because its commercial satellite business is booming.

In Sunnyvale, though, "we've had several hundred people on the [SBIRS] program leading up to this competition, and now I'll put several hundred more on it," Henshaw said. Eventually, the Lockheed Martin team should have about 1,000 people on the SBIRS project, he said.

The project, which will be launched beginning early in the next century, will use advanced sensors and other satellite-borne technology to keep a constant watch for enemy missile launches.

In the first phase, the Lockheed Martin team will construct five geosynchronous satellites, related sensor payloads and other support equipment.

Eventually, SBIRS also will have more than a dozen low-Earth orbiting satellites, and the competition to build those spacecraft will again pit the Lockheed Martin and Hughes/TRW teams. The entire project is expected to be worth several billion dollars.

The project is expected not only to better spot enemy launches of big, intercontinental ballistic missiles, but also launches of smaller, shorter-range tactical missiles such as the Scud missiles used by Iraq in the Persian Gulf War.

SBIRS' roots are in the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars" program launched by former President Reagan. But the end of the Cold War prompted the Pentagon to seek a design that could not only be used for spotting nuclear weapons, but also launches of short-range missiles.

Although TRW lost the first phase of SBIRS, it's still busy building the remaining satellites for the current missile defense system. DSP calls for a total of 23 satellites, of which TRW has delivered 17, Koris said.

"We have several hundred people working on DSP, and that's going to continue," she said. "They're not really affected by the loss of SBIRS."

TRW's space group overall employs about 8,800 people, and its fortunes have improved sharply in recent years. As a result, the group hired 1,200 people in 1995 and expects to hire 1,500 this year.

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