The most disturbing aspect of the latest development with the U.S. Air Force’s Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) is not that the program faces more delays and cost overruns – as bad as that is. It is the fact that service officials had been insisting over the last year that the perpetually troubled missile warning satellite program had finally turned the corner and was on track for success.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense apparently found the Air Force’s optimism
– and that of SBIRS prime contractor Lockheed Martin – convincing enough that in June it partially reversed its late 2005 decision to cut the SBIRS procurement from five dedicated satellites to no more than three, and perhaps only two. Plans now call for buying at least three of the geosynchronous-orbiting satellites, and possibly a fourth.
A Sept. 26 memo from Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne disclosing the latest SBIRS woes – another delay of six to 12 months and potentially $1 billion in additional cost overruns – indicates that the service’s optimism was at best misinformed. Given the attention focused on SBIRS in the last five years, this does not exactly instill confidence that the Air Force is ready to oversee complex new development programs like the Transformational Satellite Communications System (
U.S. lawmakers who approve Pentagon spending plans tend to support T-Sat, but have long questioned Air Force assertions about how quickly the futuristic system can be fielded. It does not matter that the Air Force has structured the T-Sat procurement based in part on the lessons learned from the SBIRS fiasco; Congress now has yet another piece of evidence that the Air Force is incapable of assessing the progress
of these complex
Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s strategy for maintaining continuity in missile warning, which just a few short months ago appeared to be crystallizing around SBIRS after nearly two years of uncertainty and debate, has once again been thrown open to question.
The designated replacement for SBIRS, the Alternative Infrared Satellite System (AIRSS), has evolved in the last year from a stopgap replacement – its original intent – to a next-generation system. And while Mr. Wynne raised the possibility of moving on to AIRSS after the third SBIRS satellite, there appear to be compatibility issues with this option.
SBIRS long ago earned the ignominious distinction as the poster child for program mismanagement. Given that track record, the latest revelations make it tempting
to declare that the time has come to put SBIRS out of the American taxpayer’s misery once and for all. The case for doing just that is
based on more than just sheer exasperation: What sense does it make to continue pouring money into a program that has had such incredible difficulty staying on track?
Unfortunately, however, the Pentagon has no choice but to dip into the public till for SBIRS yet again. The alternative would be to
bet billions of those same taxpayer dollars that the Air Force
can develop a brand new system and have it ready to enter service around 2009, which is when the geosynchronous SBIRS satellites are tentatively scheduled to begin replacing the venerable Defense Support Program missile warning satellites, whose technology dates back to the 1970s.
Moreover, once the money is spent to ensure that the first three SBIRS satellites are able to perform their mission relative to both existing and emerging missile threats, it would be imprudent to then walk away from the program in favor of the uncertainty of a new system.
Rushing ahead with an accelerated deployment schedule for AIRSS would risk repeating the mistakes that put the Air Force in its current predicament. In the opinion of independent space acquisition experts, most notably former Martin Marietta chief A. Thomas Young, SBIRS careened out of control largely because managers shortchanged systems engineering on the program during its critical early phases. That said, it is encouraging that the Office of Secretary of Defense in February commissioned a study of a gap-filler satellite that could be launched relatively quickly if needed.
Meanwhile, however, and regardless of whether the gap filler is needed, the Air Force must get serious now about laying the groundwork for a SBIRS replacement, which means putting AIRSS on a clearly defined and executable development schedule. If SBIRS ends up performing well enough on orbit that the replacement ultimately is deferred – even after considerable expenditure and even if it appears ready for prime time – so be it: Missile warning is not an optional capability; whatever it costs, the United States must spend.