The satellites being developed under the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High program could get pushed aside in favor of new technology. If that happens, it will largely be the result of the myriad of problems that SBIRS High has undergone in its 10-year history of running behind schedule and over budget.

SBIRS High, the planned replacement for the 1970s-vintage Defense Support Program satellites that scan the Earth for signs of missile launches, is supposed to be composed of six satellites. Four of those spacecraft would be placed in geostationary orbit (GEO) , and two would be positioned in highly elliptical orbits.

The idea was that SBIRS High would enhance U.S. capabilities for early warning of missile launch activity and thus also strengthen the country’s fledgling missile defense system. However, repeated cost increases and delays have weakened the program’s chances of survival. SBIRS High initially was supposed to cost about $2 billion. Now the Air Force believes the program will end up costing $10.6 billion. Indeed, $4.7 billion has already been spent on the troubled program.

The SBIRS High program has had four Nunn-McCurdy cost breaches since 2001; two of these occurred in 2005. After the first two breaches, SBIRS High was restructured, to little avail. The last quarter of Fiscal Year 2005 saw a 25-percent increase in the program’s costs, according to a Pentagon selected acquisition report on the SBIRS High program.

According to Air Force officials, spiraling costs can be traced to “technical rework necessitated by inadequate systems engineering in early design phases and latent defects in the early manufacturing processes.” Furthermore, the spike in costs was “attributed to overcoming first-time development issues, fixing design and manufacturing mistakes and correcting mistakes caused by human error.”

The defense contractor in charge of SBIRS High, Lockheed Martin, has a contract for the first two GEO satellites. Originally, Lockheed Martin was to deliver the satellites (GEO-1 and -2) to the Air Force, which would then buy three additional satellites (-3, -4, and -5).

After the latest Nunn-McCurdy cost-growth breach, Kenneth Krieg, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, put a stop to that. In an acquisition decision memo dated Dec. 15, 2005, he altered the program so that GEO-1 and GEO-2 are SBIRS High’s only certainties.

Instead, an Alternative Infrared Satellite System (AIRSS) may take up SBIRS High’s slack. While it has a different name depending on who is speaking of it — AIRSS, Overhead Non-Imaging Infrared, or Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High/Alternative Program Development — the idea is the same. In a Dec. 21, 2005, request for proposals, the Air Force asked for a satellite system that could provide “wide-field-of-view telescopes” and large format focal plane arrays, which could image all of Earth from geostationary orbit.

According to Krieg, “In the near term, funding for this near program will be used to perform technology risk-reduction, perform system definition and evaluate alternative sensor architectures in preparation for the authorization to proceed for the new system” during the government’s 2008 budget year. By that time the government is expected to make a decision as to whether the Pentagon will continue with AIRSS or SBIRS High.

AIRSS is supposed to provide the research and development needed to develop a third geosynchronous platform that would be used instead of GEO-3. If it were to be chosen, an AIRSS launch date would not be until 2015 (compared to a tentative 2009 for GEO-1 and 2011 for GEO-2).

Showing that the service is serious about the program, the Air Force included a request of $103 million for AIRSS in its 2007 budget request. Up to $1.9 billion would be spent on the AIRSS program through the 2011 budget. This is research, development, testing and evaluation funding.

By comparison, the administration is requesting $700.2 million in 2007 for SBIRS High. Most of that amount also is research, development, testing and evaluation funding. Procurement does not become a primary part of the SBIRS High budget line until the 2009 budget when nearly $1.3 billion would be set aside for buying satellites (out of a total request for the program of $1.8 billion). Through the 2011 budget, $4.7 billion is planned for SBIRS High.

So we have SBIRS High, which could cost nearly $10.6 billion (when you add the $4.7 billion figure to what has already been spent), and AIRSS, whose costs are estimated to run $1.9 billion just in its first five years of inception. (Pentagon officials have already said that if AIRSS was chosen, its funds would be rolled into the SBIRS High account.) This means that the United States could very well be spending $12.5 billion for a handful of satellites which may or may not ever be fielded.

With the Pentagon scheduling AIRSS to receive nearly half the money SBIRS High might, it seems that AIRSS is much more than a simple technology demonstration effort. SBIRS High has what looks to be, financially at least, a real competitor.

SBIRS High still has some time to pull itself together. However, the situation does not look good for the beleaguered program.

Victoria Samson is a research analyst at the Washington-based Center for Defense Intelligence.