Editorial: The Legacy of SBIRS

by

The restructuring of the U.S. Air Force’s Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellite program has the look of a desperate measure that was called for by desperate times.

Undertaken as a result of the program’s latest Nunn-McCurdy cost-growth breach, the restructuring reduces the number of SBIRS satellites the Air Force will purchase from five to no more than three, with that third satellite contingent on the performance of the first.

Clearly this was the best choice among a list of bad alternatives — a necessary move, but no silver bullet.

It seems highly unlikely, for example, that the restructuring will save U.S. taxpayers much money, if any at all. Billions of dollars already have been spent on the SBIRS design and development effort, and it is by no means clear that the Air Force and prime contractor Lockheed Martin have resolved all of the problems that caused the program’s costs to spiral out of control. Design and development costs — which typically account for most of the spending on U.S. government satellite programs — are what they are, regardless of how many satellites are ordered.

Perhaps even more troubling are the SBIRS performance questions raised by the restructuring plan. There is no escaping the meaning of the conditions attached to any order for a third SBIRS satellite: the Air Force has committed itself to buying at least two satellites that may not be up to the job.

Finally, the Air Force now has to fund a brand new competition and development effort for the missile warning system that will succeed SBIRS. And there is no guarantee that this follow-on system will be immune to the technical problems and poor management that have plagued SBIRS.

In the end, however, Pentagon officials likely judged — correctly, if belatedly — that it is better to put a deeply flawed program out of its misery sooner rather than later. If there is any good that can come from the whole sorry episode, which is not over yet, it will be that the Defense Department heeds its lessons.

These lessons were best articulated by the Defense Science Board/Air Force Scientific Advisory Board Joint Task Force on Acquisition of National Security Space Programs, which was led by A. Thomas Young.

Congress should demand that the SBIRS follow-on program and all future space procurements are funded and managed as the Young panel recommends.