Air Force to discuss ‘unusual and compelling urgency’ for new missile-warning satellites

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The SBIRS follow-on has been the subject of many studies and much analysis.

WASHINGTON — Defense and space industry executives were surprised Wednesday to see a U.S. Air Force “sources sought and request for information” in FedBizOpps on the next-generation missile-warning satellite constellation — known as the Space-Based Infrared System Follow-On.

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center invited contractors to an industry day Nov. 21 and gave them a short window of less than 24 hours to register.

To many who have watched the SBIRS follow-on effort drag on for years, the suddenly convened industry day seemed odd. Industry sources said they were puzzled as to why the Air Force solicitation talks about an urgent need and then says a new system would not be deployed until 2029.

The Space and Missile Systems Center’s Remote Sensing Directorate has an “unusual and compelling urgency to constitute a new highly resilient space warfighting construct-based five geosynchronous and two polar next generation architecture, in order to counter emerging threats while operating in a contested environment,” said the solicitation.

An industry consultant who works with space companies said it was disappointing that the Air Force appears to be ready to move forward with a future SBIRS but is setting a 12-year timeline.

According to the RFI: “To accelerate against emerging threats, the Air Force intends to procure Next Gen Block 0 … in Fiscal Year 2029, with an initial launch capability in Fiscal Year 2025.” The Next Gen Block 1 would start in 2020 and continue for about 10 years.

The SBIRS follow-on has been the subject of many studies and much analysis. The Air Force in fact encourages respondents to take into account previous SBIRS follow-on analysis of alternatives dating back to 2014.

This is the third “sources sought request for information” for SBIRS follow-on in the last 18 months.

The cost of SBIRS

The current SBIRS High includes four geostationary satellites, two SBIRS hosted payloads on satellites in highly elliptical orbit, two replenishment satellites and sensors, and fixed and mobile ground stations. The program is on track to have both hosted payloads and four geostationary satellites on orbit by the end of 2017.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimated that total costs for the two payloads and four geo satellites, plus ground support, come to approximately $13.6 billion. An additional $2.15 billion has been appropriated through fiscal year 2017 for the two spare geo satellites, and $1.3 billion more has been requested in the 2018 budget to complete their procurement. Each satellite with spares and accessories is estimated to cost $1.7 billion.

The follow-on system has been discussed as an opportunity to exploit commercial space industry advances and design a lower cost system, possibly with a larger number of satellites that could more easily replaced if attacked by enemies. The Air Force also has said a future system should be integrated into a broader “war fighting” space architecture.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for SBIRS, with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems as the payload integrator. The 460th Space Wing at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, operates the system.

The RFI suggests that the Air Force is not confident that any other company will be able to challenge Lockheed Martin.

The “next gen missile warning strategy may result in a new program focused on delivering the core missile warning capabilities,” said the FedBizOpps announcement. A core capability is a nuclear-hardened “next-generation layer of the architecture that will provide missile warning equal to or greater than today’s SBIRS program of record.” Based on recent market research, the government has concluded that Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company is the only source capable of meeting the Next Gen Block 0 requirements, “without unacceptable schedule risks.”

The SBIRS program was once one the Pentagon’s biggest procurement headaches, with massive cost growth and schedule slippages. The Defense Department in 2001 made the first of several notifications to Congress that SBIRS High breached so-called “Nunn-McCurdy” cost growth limits. Under the law, a 15 percent cost overrun requires notification to Congress. And a 25 percent increase requires the Pentagon to certify that the program is essential to national security and no alternatives exist.

The first SBIRS breach violated the 25 percent limit, and two more came after that before the program was restructured and started to perform better.

The $1.3 billion request in 2018 for SBIRS is $862 million more than the Air Force got in the 2017 budget.

The House Armed Services Committee called SBIRS a “pillar of our nation’s ability to gather intelligence on, identify, and track missile launches around the globe.”

Lockheed is under contract for geo satellites 5 and 6, but the Air Force has yet to decide how to move forward with 7 and 8. SBIRS 5 and 6 are scheduled to reach orbit in 2021 and 2022 as replacements for satellites 1 and 2.

More of the same?

The industry consultant said many in the industry are skeptical that the Air Force wants to depart from business as usual for the next generation of SBIRS. After taxpayers “bailed out three Nunn-McCurdy breaches on SBIRS High,” he asked, what is the incentive to change?

Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, said it would be disappointing if this program turned out to be “more of the same.”

Pentagon officials for years have talked publicly about wanting a different approach to acquiring space systems in the face of threats from Russian and Chinese anti-satellite capabilities, Weeden told SpaceNews. “But at least for this program, it appears their answer is to do mostly the same thing as they’ve done in the past, and take 12 years, at least, to do it.”

Perhaps changes will be made to the on-board capabilities of the satellites, but from a constellation architecture perspective it’s pretty much the same, said Weeden. “They’re still building a small number of expensive, complicated satellites, the same kind of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ that everyone said they had to get away from.”

It is unclear how exactly the Air Force plans to defend missile-warning satellites against the proclaimed threats, said Weeden. There is a “positive shift” toward a “common enterprise ground system,” he added. “But still the timeframe for putting it in place seems very much at odds with the proclaimed urgency.”