WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force deferred a key capability on its new generation of missile warning satellites in order to focus its resources on getting the first dedicated spacecraft in the long-delayed and overbudget system built and into orbit, a senior service official said.

Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said the service will not be able to fully exploit data from the staring sensors aboard the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites until 2016 or 2017. The issue will affect the speed with which the Air Force can assess and provide appropriate warnings of missile launches around the world.

Speaking March 22 at a Defense Writers Group breakfast here, Shelton said the Air Force ran into “money issues” on the SBIRS program that led it to focus on getting the first satellite into orbit while deferring work on the ground segment. Moreover, he said, some of the ground software for the SBIRS satellites has proved more complex than anticipated.

The first dedicated SBIRS satellite, dubbed GEO-1, was placed into geosynchronous orbit in May 2011 — nearly a decade behind its original schedule — and is expected to begin operations before the end of 2012. Each geosynchronous SBIRS satellite has two main infrared sensors: a scanning sensor that sweeps over large swaths of territory watching for missile launches, and a staring sensor that can be trained constantly on a smaller area of interest to provide immediate notification of launches.

Until the new software is ready, Shelton said, the Air Force will not be able to exploit the staring sensor data in real time, meaning upon collection. In the meantime, he said, the service is downlinking the staring sensor data and sending it to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, for analysis, he said.

“We are going to continue to investigate the possibilities of taking advantage of all of the SBIRS capabilities in a much more tactical way over the next few years here,” Shelton said.

NASIC officials are analyzing the data from the first SBIRS satellite every day, he said.

The SBIRS constellation will consist of four dedicated satellites in geosynchronous orbit as well as infrared sensors hosted aboard two classified satellites in highly elliptical orbit. The hosted sensors are in orbit and the second of the dedicated satellites is scheduled to launch this spring.

Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., is prime contractor on the SBIRS program, with responsibility for both the space and ground segments.

In a written response to questions, Lockheed Martin spokesman Michael Friedman said the GEO-1 satellite is undergoing certification that will culminate in real-time availability of its scanning-sensor data by the end of the year. “As part of the program’s baseline, Lockheed Martin is currently on schedule to provide a ground system upgrade to enable starer data utilization for the real-time mission,” Friedman said. “Lockheed Martin is aware that the outstanding performance of the GEO-1 starer has sparked increased demand for the data throughout the user community, and we are committed to delivering for the warfighter.”

Operational details about the SBIRS program are sensitive, but Air Force officials have spoken glowingly about the performance to date of the GEO-1 satellite as well as the two sensors in elliptical orbit, both of which are operational. But the development program was infamous for its lengthy development and skyrocketing costs, which went from some $3 billion when the prime contract was awarded to more than $10 billion as of a few years ago.

The Air Force considered dropping the staring sensor from the satellites as a cost saving move but ultimately scrapped the idea.

The staring sensor represents a brand new capability; the legacy Defense Support Program satellites, which date back to the 1970s and remain the backbone of the U.S. early warning system, have only the scanning sensor.

The SBIRS scanning sensor has shorter revisit times in its field of view than the Defense Support Program sensor, according to an Air Force fact sheet.

SBIRS is one of several U.S. military space programs whose ground and satellite systems are out of sync, a longstanding issue that limits the new capabilities advertised for next-generation systems. Among the others is the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System, a new generation of mobile communications satellites that began launching in February.

“We’re seeing too many programs that the user equipment is just arriving years later than the satellites, and you really have a situation where you’re wasting expensive capability in space when that happens,” Christina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, told lawmakers at a March 21 hearing.

Chaplain said developers and users of satellite ground systems should “understand the complexity of what they are trying to achieve when they set out to do it.” Closer oversight by the Defense Department and Congress also would mitigate the program, she said.

The Government Accountability Office released a report at the hearing that noted that the production of the third and fourth dedicated SBIRS satellites is a year behind schedule due to technical challenges, parts obsolescence issues and testing failures. The report says the cost of those two satellites has risen by $438 million.



Key SBIRS Capability is Delayed