House Adds Funding To Accelerate SBIRS Capability

by

WASHINGTON — House appropriators recommended boosting the U.S. Air Force’s proposed missile warning satellite budget next year in order to make one of the system’s most advanced capabilities available sooner than currently planned.

In its markup of the 2013 Pentagon spending bill, the House Appropriations defense subcommittee allocated $516 million to the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), $68 million more than the Air Force requested. The bulk of the increase would go toward ground systems needed to process data collected by the satellites’ so-called staring sensors.

Each geosynchronous-orbiting SBIRS satellite has a scanning sensor that covers large swaths of territory in a sweeping motion and a staring sensor that is trained on smaller areas of interest. The staring sensor provides more-immediate notification and analysis of missile launches, which gives U.S. forces more time to react.

The Air Force disclosed this year that work on the ground systems needed to process the staring sensor data products had been deferred so that more SBIRS program money could be funneled to the launch of the first dedicated satellite, which was several years behind schedule. The first in a planned constellation of four SBIRS spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit — the system also has sensors hosted aboard classified spacecraft in highly elliptical orbit — was successfully launched in May 2011 and is slated to begin operations this year.

The Air Force does not expect to fully exploit data from the SBIRS staring sensors until at least 2016 because the associated ground system software will not be completed until then, Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told reporters here March 22.

The staring sensor represents a brand new capability; the legacy Defense Support Program satellites, which remain the backbone of the U.S. early warning system, have only the scanning sensor.

Currently, according to Shelton, the Air Force is downlinking the staring sensor data and sending them to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, for analysis.

The appropriations panel allocated $50 million of the proposed SBIRS funding increase to speed up the “ground segment automated sensor tasking,” which will allow the scanning sensor and the starting sensor to cue off each other and track missiles more accurately, according to report language posted May 16 on the full House Appropriations Committee website.

“Further, based on the current launch schedule of the various SBIRS system components, the Committee is concerned that the ground segment needs enhancement to command and control the projected constellation,” the report states.

The second dedicated SBIRS satellite is slated to launch this summer.

Meanwhile, the House appropriators also want the Pentagon to examine whether it might save money by buying more satellites at a time.

SBIRS prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., currently is under contract to deliver four dedicated spacecraft. The Air Force’s SBIRS budget request includes initial funding to procure an additional two spacecraft under what is sometimes referred to as a block-buy strategy, which is designed to save money in part by allowing the company to order components in bulk.

The subcommittee recommended directing the Air Force, secretary of defense and Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation Office to prepare a report comparing the cost of buying three SBIRS and three Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellites with the cost of buying two of each type as now planned. The subcommittee characterized Air Force cost estimates for the fifth and sixth satellites in both systems as “extremely conservative” and asked that the Pentagon report be delivered within 30 days of enactment of the defense spending bill.

Lockheed Martin also is prime contractor on the Advanced Extremely High Frequency system, a constellation of geostationary-orbiting satellites able to provide secure, jam-proof communications to U.S. forces under any conditions.