The end of SBIRS: Air Force says it’s time to move on

by
Air Force is seeking a “survivable missile warning capability by the mid-2020s."

WASHINGTON — The Air Force will develop a new constellation of missile warning  satellites amid worries that the current system is vulnerable to attack and not a good return on investment.

In the budget proposed for fiscal year 2019, the Air Force accelerates the development of the next-generation of missile warning satellites. It provides $643 million for the program and eliminates funding for vehicles 7 and 8 of the Space Based Infrared System, or SBIRS. Funding for further development of the SBIRS program of record also is substantially reduced.  

Air Force spokesman Maj. Will Russell told SpaceNews that the new plan for SBIRS is to ensure a “survivable missile warning capability by the mid-2020s to counter adversary advances.” The funding for SBIRS space vehicles 7 and 8 is transitioning to a new program called “Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared.” The Air Force also is ramping up the development of a new ground-control system.

What exactly will replace SBIRS remains to be seen. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson suggested the new system will be “simpler” and more survivable to enemy attacks.

The SBIRS program, meanwhile, continues apace. There are two more satellites being assembled at Lockheed Martin’s plant in Sunnyvale, California, that are scheduled to launch over the next three to four years. Northrop Grumman supplies the sensor payloads.

The Air Force last month sent into orbit the fourth Space Based Infrared System geosynchronous satellite known as SBIRS GEO Flight 4. And it is already seeking bids from launch providers for a fifth SBIRS GEO satellite in 2021. A sixth GEO SBIRS is expected to follow in 2022.

“A lot of equipment is being manufactured,” said Tom McCormick, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Overhead Persistent Infrared Systems.

With four geostationary satellites in orbit — as well as two hosted payloads on satellites in polar orbits — SBIRS has reached the minimum “baseline” configuration that the Air Force considers sufficient to meet early-warning and surveillance needs around the world. By 2022, two more satellites will bring additional “eyes” with a mix of scanning and staring infrared sensors.

The first four satellites cost on average $1.7 billion per satellite, including spare parts and support equipment.

McCormick said SBIRS 5 and 6 will cost 20 percent less. The reductions resulted from a combination of production efficiencies initiated by Lockheed Martin — such as the use of the LM2100 commercial spacecraft bus — and from the elimination of red tape directed by the Air Force, he said in an interview.

Calls to move in a new direction

Military officials had hinted for some time that the program was due for a correction. Despite its recent successes, SBIRS is not widely supported. Critics say it has become a poster child for military acquisitions that cost too much and take too long to produce.

A key proponent of shaking up the missile warning satellite program is Gen. John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command. He has warned that growing risks of cyber and electronic attacks make U.S. constellations increasingly vulnerable and that future systems should be more resilient. Without mentioning SBIRS specifically, he suggested that the Pentagon should stop building “exquisite” satellites that make “juicy” targets for enemies.

As head of Strategic Command, Hyten is responsible for the global command and control of the nation’s nuclear forces. An electronic attack on U.S. satellites could have catastrophic consequences, he cautioned. One way to make strategic missile warning systems more resilient, he said, would be to deploy networks of smaller, cheaper satellites that could be more easily replaced if they came under attack.

Hyten also has criticized the Air Force’s timeline for developing a next-generation SBIRS. The Space and Missile Systems Center has recommended an incremental program of five “block” upgrades starting in 2025 and reaching completion by 2029.

Hyten called it “ridiculous” that a new constellation could take 12 years to put up. “All I need is a commercial bus that we can buy from anybody,” he said in December. The focus should be on investing in a “very good sensor” for strategic missile warning that can be attached to any satellite.

In a conference call with reporters last month, Air Force Col. Dennis Bythewood, the director of the Remote Sensing Systems Directorate, defended the timeline as one that is “absolutely in line” with the military’s requirements for missile warning capabilities.

McCormick, meanwhile, said Lockheed Martin is “providing all the input the government wants to help them crystallize their path forward.” He added: “We’re interested in seeing the government firm up its acquisition plan.”

Companies in the defense and space industries have challenged the Air Force to open the SBIRS program to competitors. McCormick said Lockheed is “trying to maintain our position as their partner of choice” and continues to investigate ways to lower the cost and increase the capabilities of SBIRS.

“We certainly understand the need for speed that Gen. Hyten is looking for,” said McCormick.

Critics also have slammed the SBIRS program for using proprietary Lockheed software in the ground control systems, which makes it more difficult to add applications from nontraditional vendors. The new budget request for a modernized ground system suggests the Air Force does not disagree.

McCormick said the Air Force recently accepted the latest Block 10 upgrade of the SBIRS ground system. “It’s more open than folks realize,” he said. “We consolidated multiple ground sites into a common operating control center.”

Lockheed set up a “sensor open framework architecture” research lab in Boulder, Colorado, where Air Force users can test experimental sensors and commercial software applications, McCormick said. “Industry can use that lab to access real remote sensing infrared and weather data.” The Remote Sensing Systems Directorate picks the most promising apps and turns them over to operators at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado.

Sensor developers in the defense and space industries also are looking for opportunities to compete for SBIRS work. “It’s a key program that we have been tracking,” Christy Doyle, general manager of Raytheon Vision Systems, told SpaceNews.

The company has developed thermal imaging technology for the Pentagon and for NASA for decades. Raytheon expects to have a chance to compete for the sensor suite in the next-generation SBIRS, Doyle said. “This is an exciting time for space,” she said. “And it is a transitional time for the space business.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of SpaceNews Magazine