Editorial | Missing the Mark: Congress Should Fund CHIRP Follow-on Mission

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House appropriators were shortsighted and pre-emptive in their recommendation to deny the U.S. Air Force’s request for funds next year to begin work on a follow on to the successful Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) mission.

CHIRP is an experimental missile warning sensor that launched last year aboard the SES-2 commercial telecommunications satellite owned by fleet operator SES. Although there were some schedule delays and cost growth, which is to be expected for a pioneering program, the sensor is performing well on orbit and has observed several rocket launches to date, according to the Air Force.

Buoyed by that success, the Air Force hopes to begin work on a CHIRP follow on that would test the full capabilities of the experimental wide-field-of-view sensor, which is able to stare continuously at large swaths of territory for indications of missile launches or other pyrotechnic events. For comparison purposes, the Air Force’s Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellites, the first of which was launched last May, carry two sensors: one that scans large areas in a sweeping motion and another that stares continuously at smaller areas. The ability to stare continuously at a large area would increase the likelihood of near-instantaneous detection and characterization of militarily significant — and potentially threatening — events.

The service’s request for the follow-on hosted payload work next year is $12.6 million, a pittance within a proposed SBIRS budget of nearly $1 billion. But in marking up its version of the 2013 defense spending bill in May, the House Appropriations Committee singled it out for cancellation, and counseled the Air Force against becoming too enamored with “silver bullet” initiatives. “Quick fix substitutes for years of hard-won experience are attractive but illusory,” the committee said.

That likely was a reference to SBIRS, which despite its current solid performance in on-orbit testing came in nearly a decade late and overran its budget by billions of dollars. That was indeed hard-won experience, but it’s more than a stretch to suggest that the Air Force views the experimental CHIRP follow-on mission as a substitute for the operational SBIRS satellites. For one thing, according to Air Force and industry officials, strategic missile warning satellites must be hardened to withstand radiation from nuclear blasts, an expensive process that effectively rules out a hosted-payload solution using commercial satellites. Besides, the Air Force has clearly cast its lot with SBIRS for the foreseeable future: Lockheed Martin is under contract to build four dedicated satellites and the Air Force is requesting funding next year to buy two additional spacecraft.

The House committee said the Air Force should focus on ground system enhancements rather than new sensors to improve its missile warning capability. Accordingly, its proposed bill would add $100 million to the SBIRS ground system budget — with various cuts, the net increase to the program is $68 million — in part to accelerate applications for data from the satellites’ staring sensors. The Air Force acknowledged in March that its ability to fully exploit the staring-sensor data had been deferred until at least 2016 owing to a decision to divert funding for the necessary software development to getting the long-delayed first satellite into orbit.

The additional funds for the SBIRS ground system are welcome, but shouldn’t come at the expense of developing promising new sensor technology, even in the current budgetary environment.

The appropriators referenced “immature concepts and technologies” in recommending against funding the CHIRP follow on, and that may well apply to the sensor in question. But they seem to be missing an obvious point: The Air Force needs to test promising technologies to bring them to a maturity level needed for operational missions, and flying them as hosted payloads aboard commercial satellites is a great way to do that. Moreover, while commercially hosted sensors are not suitable for strategic missile warning, they might be able to augment SBIRS for tactical missile warning and military intelligence applications.

When defense budgets get tight, as they are now, a natural reaction is to circle the wagons around established programs like SBIRS. But the Pentagon still must find ways to stay on the cutting edge of technology and explore concepts with the potential to save money in long term. There are precious few programmatic avenues these days for doing that; it’s unfortunate that the House appropriators chose to target one of those. Hopefully, more progress-oriented minds will prevail when Senate appropriators mark up their version of the defense spending bill and in the subsequent conference with their House counterparts.