GAO steps up criticism of Space Force’s missile-warning satellite procurement

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GAO: 'Despite early steps to speed up development, the Next-Gen OPIR program faces significant technical and managerial challenges'

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force is providing Congress overly optimistic projections about the schedule and cost of next-generation early warning satellites, the Government Accountability Office said in a new report.

GAO in a report released Sept. 22 raised concerns about the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared Block 0, or Next-Gen OPIR, a planned constellation of five sensor satellites that will provide early warning of ballistic missile launches. This procurement was started by the U.S. Air Force in 2018 to supplement existing missile-warning satellites. The Space Force compressed the program schedule by 42 months and plans to launch the first satellite by 2025. 

The congressional watchdog said committees are skeptical of the current schedule and cost projections for Next-Gen OPIR and called on the Department of the Air Force to provide more realistic estimates.

“Despite early steps to speed up development, the Next-Gen OPIR program faces significant technical and managerial challenges — such as developing a new mission payload and serving as the lead system integrator for the first time in this area — that are likely to delay the initial launch,” said GAO. “Significant schedule delays typically result in cost increases.”

GAO has flagged issues about Next-Gen OPIR in a previous report. The new assessment elevates the agency’s concerns.

The Space Force plans to spend $14.4 billion through 2025 on Next-Gen OPIR. Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are the satellite manufacturers. Raytheon and Ball Aerospace are payload providers. 

The Next-Gen OPIR program office at the Space Systems Command took on the role of lead systems integrator, responsible for ensuring the space and ground segments work together. The program office is tasked with coordinating multiple prime and subcontractors to develop components such as sensors, software, and electronics across the space and ground segments. It’s not clear that the government is equipped to fulfill this role, GAO warned. 

“Although the Space Force has some previous experience acting as the lead system integrator on its Global Positioning System program, this is the first time the government will serve such a role for the missile warning capability area,” the report said. Lockheed Martin has been the lead systems integrators in past missile-warning satellite programs.

Although officials are aware of schedule and budget risks, “they continue to present an on-track timeline and stable cost estimates in reports to congressional committees,” said GAO. “More transparency in schedules and costs would contribute to better Department of Defense and congressional oversight and decision-making.”