Defense contractors vie for victory in several megadeals slated to be awarded in 2018

Key Points
  • Defense firms are vying for some $30 billion in deals next year that include next-generation GPS satellites, a new Navy frigate and an Army combat vehicle.
  • Big contracts are likely to get delayed until after the White House releases its fiscal 2019 budget request in early February.
  • Also, Moody's said Wednesday "contractors that have not led major platform programs will have greater opportunity to do so" in the coming years.
Workers at a Lockheed Martin facility in the Denver area inspecting the company’s GPS III SV1 satellite in an environmentally clean testing chamber.
Source: Lockheed Martin

Three major Pentagon competitions worth around $30 billion are up for grabs in 2018 that have the potential to deliver significant boosts to the bottom line of the winning defense contractors.

Analysts say the announcement on some of the largest defense contracts may get delayed until after President Donald Trump releases his fiscal 2019 budget in early February. That budget is expected to include more money devoted to modernization and the buildup of the military.

Also, Moody's Investors Service analyst Bruce Herskovics said in a report Wednesday "contractors that have not led major platform programs will have greater opportunity to do so," given the Pentagon's push for more innovation from the defense industrial base and changes in procurement. It estimates tens of billions of dollars in contract opportunities may become available over the next five years from these "non-traditional bidders."

Indeed, Moody's said the new players are "already securing a place on important programs," including Elon Musk's SpaceX having won Air Force contracts and Kratos recently getting a contract for development of an unmanned aerial drone system aircraft.

But for 2018 there are still several large deals that have attracted interest from the larger defense primes and even some smaller companies.

Air Force's GPS upgrade

For the Air Force, there's a $10 billion contract that involves production of up to 22 next-generation GPS III new satellites. Lockheed Martin won the first phase of the global positioning satellite III contract in 2008 but suffered delays due to issues with the satellite's navigation payload.

Frustrated by the delays, the Air Force opened the bidding for the second block of GPS III satellites although Lockheed still has a deal to build up to 10 satellites. The current program, which also includes navigation payload supplier Harris, is about three years behind schedule so it has put added pressure on the Air Force.

In September, the Air Force declared the first GPS III space vehicle from Lockheed as "available for launch," and a Lockheed spokesman said there's an expectation it will get launched in 2018.

In all, the Air Force wants a total of at least 32 satellites, all equipped with significantly improved anti-jamming capabilities and more accuracy than the previous generation of GPS satellites. The new satellites also are designed to increase military capabilities for war-fighting operations and the commercial market.

"Lockheed has had some challenges, and so now the Air Force has done its best to level the playing field and has had Boeing, Lockheed, and Northrop Grumman kind of all are doing low-cost demonstration payload work for the next kind of increment," said Roman Schweizer, a defense analyst at Cowen. "What the Air Force would like to do is purchase the next 22 satellites through a full and open competition."

Schweizer pointed out there's also a deal pending for Northrop to buy rocket maker Orbital ATK for just over $9 billion, a transaction he suggests shows Northrop's "desire to go be more in the space business. This [GPS contract] might be a perfect opportunity to do that." Northrop declined comment for this story.

A Boeing spokesperson told CNBC on Wednesday the company "will assess the final request for proposal and decide our course of action."

The Air Force told CNBC on Wednesday it's "in the final stages for approval to release the request for proposal, and intends to do so in the coming weeks."

The Cowen analyst said he expects the next phase of the GPS III contract to get awarded in late 2018.

Navy's next frigate

For the Navy, a big ticket contract is a future guided missile frigate, or FFG(X) contract that could get awarded for design sometime next year. Schweizer said the warship could be "potentially more robust" than the Navy's current Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), which have suffered from some embarrassing breakdowns.

The Navy wants to buy at least 20 ships, which the analyst said would be "certainly more expensive than the existing LCS class. So it's possible it might be a deal in the $15 billion range."

Still, the new frigate idea is somewhat controversial although backers suggest it would help the Navy increase its ability to hunt down submarines and handle other missions, including surface warfare and air defense.

"This is going to be our third attempt in the last 15 years to try and get right the issue of small surface combatant procurement," Ronald O'Rourke, a naval affairs expert at the Congressional Research Service testified at a Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee hearing in July.

The Navy released details on the proposed frigate over the summer, saying it would "consider existing parent designs for a small surface combatant that can be modified." The Navy is expected to pick at least three bidders to do the initial concept design sometime next year and then award a design and construction contract sometime in 2020.

Makers of the LCS vessels, including Fincantieri Marinette Marine and Austal USA, are expected to participate in the competition as well as other advanced combatant shipbuilders such as General Dynamics and Huntington Ingalls. The Navy is set to hold an industry day event on Friday in Washington to discuss the FFG(X) and provide more information on requirements and objectives to interested contractors.

Army's firepower answer

Another significant contract is the Army's Mobile Protected Firepower, or MPF vehicle. The Cowen analyst estimates the program could run about $3 billion to $4 billion and involve a handful of competitors, including BAE Systems, General Dynamics and Science Applications International.

The selection of two companies for the engineering and manufacturing design of the lightweight armored combat vehicle could happen next year or be pushed into 2019. The Army, which sent out its request for proposal in September, could field the first MPF vehicle in 2022.

Schweizer said the Army learned from its experience in Afghanistan that there's a need for more armor and firepower to some of the lighter vehicles, rather than the traditional tank-on-tank, armored-formation warfare.

"The MPF vehicle will provide infantry brigade combat teams with a long-range direct-fire capability for forcible entry and breaching operations," the Army News Service reported last month. "It could very well have a 105mm gun up top, officials said, like the original Abrams tank."

Meantime, the Air Force's $16 billion T-X Trainer program is still up for grabs and contenders include Boeing, Lockheed and Leonardo DRS. The winning team will get an order for up to 350 jets to replace the Air Force's aging T-38 trainers that have been around since the 1960s. It looks like it will now get announced sometime in the spring, later than originally expected.

Finally, an Air Force contract essentially on hold is the JSTARS recap program to replace the existing E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System fleet. It is potentially valued at about $7 billion. The competition pits Northrop (the incumbent) against Boeing and Lockheed.