The U.S. Air Force has awarded three small but potentially significant contracts to Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to study the possibility of recompeting production of its next-generation Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites.

Lockheed Martin won the original GPS III competition and is building the initial batch of eight navigation satellites, but the program has experienced cost overruns, schedule delays and technical problems. Boeing, which built earlier versions of GPS spacecraft, and Northrop Grumman have both expressed interest in entering a recompete. The new contest would be for as many as 22 GPS III satellites worth billions of dollars.

“Industry told us they were ready to compete for the GPS III space vehicles,” said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base.

“We look forward to working with Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to assess the feasibility of a follow-on, competitive production contract.”

The three contracts, announced May 5, call for each company to assess its ability to build GPS III satellites. The contracts are worth up to $6 million apiece and have a performance period of up to 38 months.

Lockheed Martin said in a statement that its GPS III design is “beyond production-ready,” as the company already has “retired” most of the program’s risk. “With this contract award, we intend to demonstrate how our design for GPS III can evolve to address the Air Force’s future needs and incorporate new technologies as they become available in a low-risk manner,” Lockheed Martin spokesman Chip Eschenfelder said. “It builds on our plan to drive costs down with increased efficiencies.”

Northrop Grumman said it has devised a “GPS solution” that would best meet the program’s need for affordable, resilient spacecraft. “Northrop Grumman’s submission was based on an advanced prototype navigational payload built and tested in 2015, and leverages our rich legacy of developing and fielding critical national space systems,” said Tim Frei, vice president of communications systems at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.

While the next batch of GPS III satellites will be similar to the first group, some changes are planned, including the addition of a redesigned nuclear detonation detection system furnished by the government. Another new feature is a payload, also provided by the government, to aid search-and-rescue missions.

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Marc Selinger is a journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @marcselinger.