The Air Force plans to launch a new secret payload, known as Silent Barker, as a way to improve space situational awareness in 2022, according to a request for proposals released Jan. 31.

Gen. John W. Raymond, the head of Air Force Space Command, said in written testimony in May 2017 that Silent Barker is a “collaborative acquisition program” between the National Reconnaissance Office and the Air Force. The program aims to improve satellite threat intelligence and space situational awareness. Raymond was testifying before the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee.

Since then, in media roundtables, Air Force officials have declined to say much about the program. But in a formal solicitation released Jan. 31, the Air Force said it planned to launch the new capability in fiscal 2022.

The program is also referred to as NROL-107 in the solicitation documents.

The DoD’s tight-lipped posture was underscored this week by Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who stressed the importance of secrecy in the space domain in order to maintain a competitive advantage.

“We have to be very disciplined about what we say regarding space,” Selva said, according to a report in SpaceNews. “There are things we should never talk about.”

U.S. Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, D.C., Jan. 30, 2018. Gen. Selva stressed the value of secrecy in the space domain earlier this year.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, D.C., Jan. 30, 2018. Gen. Selva stressed the value of secrecy in the space domain earlier this year.

The Pentagon has been warning that space is increasingly a war-fighting domain as adversaries begin to contest an arena once almost entirely dominated by the United States.

“In the not too distant future, near-peer competitors will have the ability to hold every U.S. space asset in every orbital regime at risk,” Raymond said in his written testimony. “We need to embrace the fact that space is a war-fighting domain just like the air, land, cyberspace and maritime domains.”

The Air Force plans to launch Silent Barker from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station or Kennedy Space Center in 2022. It is one of five launches the service revealed in a final request for proposal from industry for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle launch services. The other launches include two mission for the NRO known as NROL-85 and NROL-87, the fifth satellite in the Air Force’s missile warning constellation known as Space-Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (SBIRS GEO)-5, and Air Force Space Command-44.

The battle for the contracts will likely be a contest between United Launch Alliance, a joint venture from Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and SpaceX, the aerospace manufacturing company run by tech billionaire Elon Musk.

“This solicitation incorporates a tradeoff between past performance, performance and schedule sub-factors, and price to maintain a focus on mission success for these critical payloads,” Lt. Gen. John Thompson, Space and Missile Systems Center commander, said in a release.

The Air Force will award firm-fixed-price contracts that include launch vehicle production, mission integration, and launch operations.

Proposals are due April 16 with contracts expected to be awarded in late 2018.