While the U.S. Air Force will spend more than it previously expected for the third satellite in a new missile warning constellation,

the cost of buying that spacecraft

likely will be less than the cost of purchasing a satellite with a brand new design, according to Tonya Racasner, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.

Moving to a new design also would

have resulted in additional programmatic risk, Racasner said in a June 27 e-mail response to questions from Space News.

The Air Force announced its intent June 21 to purchase a third Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High from Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., the prime contractor on the effort.

The Air Force

initially planned to buy five geosynchronous orbiting satellites for the SBIRS program, two sensors to be hosted on classified satellites in highly elliptical orbits, and all the related ground equipment for about $2 billion when it awarded the contract to Lockheed Martin in 1996. At that time, the first of the geosynchronous orbiting satellites was expected to launch in 2002.

The Pentagon, however, was forced to restructure

the program

in late 2006.

By that time its price tag

exceeded $10 billion and the first launch had been


into 2008. At that point, Kenneth Krieg, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, directed the Air Force to buy only two

geosynchronous SBIRS satellites, leaving open

only the possibility of purchasing a third.

Krieg also directed the Air Force to begin parallel development of an alternative missile warning system that could replace SBIRS after the second or third satellite. Air Force officials at the time noted that the Alternative Infrared Satellite System (AIRSS) could take advantage of new technology that had

matured since the SBIRS contract was awarded 10 years earlier. They also said

SBIRS might be facing some parts obsolescence issues beginning with the third satellite.

In a June

21 posting on the Federal Business Opportunities

Web site, the Air Force announced that it planned to award a sole-source contract to Lockheed Martin for the third SBIRS geosynchronous satellite, as well as a third and fourth highly elliptically orbiting sensor. The cost of all that work

is expected to be “slightly more than $2.4 billion,” Racasner said.

Steve Tatum, a Lockheed Martin spokesman, said in a written statement that the company views the Air Force’s plan to purchase a

third SBIRS satellite

as a “vote of confidence.”

“SBIRS will greatly benefit both the intelligence and war

fighting communities and we have utmost confidence in the path forward to successfully execute this vital national security program and sustain the on-orbit missile surveillance satellite constellation,” Tatum said.

Tatum said

thermal vacuum testing on the first geosynchronous payload

recently was completed, and integration with the payload and spacecraft platform is expected to begin in August.

Racasner declined to

answer any questions about

the individual price of the third SBIRS satellite until the contract is formally awarded to Lockheed Martin. However, she said

the third satellite will likely require “slightly more than $200 million” more than what the service initially anticipated in order

to replace parts that are no longer available from their original suppliers.

Racasner said that by the time the third geostationary SBIRS satellite is built, some parts will be obsolete. “For the majority of those there are replacement parts readily available, some will require screening/qualification testing for our use. For those that don’t have a readily available replacement, we will reproduce more of the same. In some cases, reproducing complex electronics piece parts requires design modifications to accommodate upgrades in the integrated circuit manufacturing process (the circuitry has gotten smaller and the design may need to be modified). This process is not a high risk, but it does take time to ‘


and requalify the parts. Although not required, we may choose to replace the existing common gyro reference assembly

to reap cost and performance benefits. A decision will be made when additional technical and cost detail is available.”

Assuming a contract is signed by early 2008, the third SBIRS satellite could be launched by early 2014, Racasner said in an e-mail.

Building an alternative missile warning satellite not based on the SBIRS High design

likely would cost about $2.6 billion, including non-recurring costs, and would not have been ready to launch until

late 2015, according to Racasner’s


In the months leading up to their decision to purchase a third SBIRS satellite, Air Force officials

said the strong performance of the first highly elliptical payload they placed on a classified satellite justified that decision.

Racasner said

the highly elliptically orbiting sensor is sending data to operators on the ground, and that its performance has been “very good.” The sensor has experienced some “minor issues” with flight and ground software, but they have been typical of what is expected with new systems

and have been resolved, she


However, some industry sources say that while the sensor has gathered data properly,

it has had difficulty with its pointing accuracy, which they said could call into question the utility of its data. The problem is severe enough that it has required shutting down the payload at least once, the source said.

“In one instance the HEO-1 payload transitioned (as designed) to a ‘protective’ mode for more than one day during diagnostic checkout of payload components,” Racasner said in an e-mail. “The ‘protective’ mode protects health and safety of the system by turning off a significant set of the payload components. As result, infrared data is not collected. We used a standard anomaly investigation process to determine root cause and develop corrective actions. Ground controllers completed transition to operations mode after approximately five days. There were no residual impacts to payload health and safety, or mission capability.”

The sources also said

the payload may be having additional difficulty due to electromagnetic interference. Program officials had struggled to contain electromagnetic interference during testing on the ground in 2003, which played a role in the cost growth and schedule delays on the program.

Racasner said

the first and second highly elliptically orbiting payloads did not meet specifications for interference levels even after design modifications were made, but the government chose to use them “as is” after going through a waiver process. On-orbit data from the first sensor thus far indicates that the sensor is performing better than expected in this regard and is not suffering from electromagnetic interference issues, she said. The third and fourth highly elliptical sensors will feature design changes that will enable them to meet the originally desired specifications, she said.