Like the end of a traumatic ordeal, the successful launch May 7 of the first of a new generation of U.S. missile warning satellites — nearly a decade later than planned — is at once cause for celebration and sober reflection. The Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) is expected to dramatically improve U.S. capabilities not only in missile warning but also in battle space characterization and technical intelligence gathering. Yet the cost to develop the system was billions and billions of dollars higher than anyone envisioned.
Some of the developmental problems were unavoidable: Advancing the state of the art in space technology always has unforeseen costs, regardless of how well a program is managed. But SBIRS did not become the poster child for Pentagon space acquisition woes solely because of its technical difficulty; this was a botched program, plain and simple.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, starting with Lockheed Martin, which won the prime contract in 1996 with a bid that was roughly half a billion dollars below that of its competitor. But Lockheed had help from its customer, the U.S. Air Force, which stretched out the program to fund other priorities, thereby driving up its cost. And both sides, in fact the entire acquisition community, bought into the notion that it was OK to treat detailed design-phase systems engineering and analysis — necessary to ensure that all hardware and software components of an extremely complex system work properly together — as an afterthought.
Despite the massive cost overruns and delays, the Air Force stayed the course, primarily for lack of a viable alternative, and in the end got its must-have system when it had to have it. The Air Force, and the nation, got lucky; the legacy Defense Support Program missile warning satellites have lasted longer than anyone had a right to expect. Assuming the first dedicated SBIRS craft clears on-orbit testing and enters service without a hitch, this would appear to close the book on one of the more painful episodes in U.S. space development history.
Time will tell whether the Air Force and industry have learned the right lessons from SBIRS; a good test will be the GPS 3 satellite navigation system now under development by Lockheed Martin. In the meantime, even if SBIRS proves wildly successful in operations, the space acquisition community must never forget that as a development program, it was anything but.