Funding Boost Accelerates Capability for SBIRS Sensor

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WASHINGTON — Some of the more advanced data products from the U.S. Air Force’s new missile warning satellite constellation will become available earlier than previously planned thanks to an additional $80 million appropriated for the program by Congress last year, according to a report from the service.

The accelerated schedule — some data products will be moved up by four years — is emblematic of a broader push by the House defense oversight committees for the Pentagon to wring as much capability as it can from its current space systems before moving on to new systems or architectures.

Lawmakers have expressed frustration that the Defense Department is not taking full advantage of space systems whose development has already been paid for. In recent months, they have pointed to programs like the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System, a planned four-satellite constellation with two already on orbit whose highly touted smartphone-like capabilities are going largely unused because the terminals are not yet available.

Another example is the final two Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellites, which were built in the 1990s and racked up hundreds of millions in storage and refurbishment costs. One of those satellites launched this year, but the Air Force has been noncommittal about launching the other and has requested funding in 2015 to begin work on a follow-on system.

The House Armed Services Committee is pushing back, drafting a defense authorization bill that denies funding for the next-generation weather satellite and recommends using the money instead to launch of the last of the legacy craft.

In addition, the House versions of both the defense authorization and appropriations bills for 2015 would restrict how the Air Force can spend Space Modernization Initiative funding. The modernization initiatives are intended to inform the Air Force’s next-generation satellite programs.

The Space Based Infrared System missile warning system is an example of where the House’s desire to emphasize the programs of record is bearing fruit.

In 2013, the House Armed Services Committee drafted an authorization bill urging the Defense Department “to make further efforts to accelerate the schedule of the full performance of the SBIRS system.”

In particular, committee members said they were unhappy that the Air Force had to wait until 2018 to realize the full capabilities of the staring sensors on the SBIRS satellites, the first two of which are on orbit. Each SBIRS satellite in geosynchronous orbit has two main sensors, one that scans large areas and one that maintains constant surveillance of smaller areas to provide more timely warning of missile launches. However, software for processing data from the staring sensors fell behind schedule as a result of conscious Air Force decisions to get the first satellites on orbit and then to certify the scanning sensors.

Following the lead of the authorizers, the House Appropriations Committee included $80 million for SBIRS ground system improvements in the 2014 defense spending bill, with half of that allocated to accelerating the availability of the staring sensor data. The measure was agreed to by the Senate and thus was part of the final defense spending bill for the year.

In a report sent to congressional defense committees in July, the Air Force said that as a result of the cash infusion, the staring sensor capabilities will become available sooner than expected — in some cases by four years. Specifically, SBIRS staring sensor data for the technical intelligence and battlespace awareness missions moved to late 2014 from 2018.

Advanced starer tasking capabilities and the inclusion of real-time data as part of the missile detection and missile warning missions will now be available in 2016 rather than 2018, the report said. Fully automated sensor tasking and cueing is still expected in 2018, although about six months earlier than planned, the report said.

When fully deployed, SBIRS will consist of four dedicated satellites in geosynchronous orbit, infrared sensors hosted aboard two classified satellites in highly elliptical orbit and a complex ground network. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, California, is prime contractor on the system.