WASHINGTON — The prime contractor for the next generation of U.S. missile warning satellites is disputing a report that production of the constellation’s third and fourth dedicated satellites is running a year behind schedule and $438 million over budget.
Jeff Smith,’ vice president for the Space Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) program, said the two geosynchronous SBIRS satellites, dubbed GEO-3 and GEO-4, that Lockheed currently has under construction at its Sunnyvale, Calif., facility for the U.S. Air Force are on schedule and not nearly as over budget as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) maintains.
“Production on GEO-3 and [GEO]-4 is proceeding well and we are confident that we are going to deliver these on our baseline schedule and well under the cost figures that you saw in that GAO report,” Smith said during an April 3 telephone interview.
Smith declined to quantify the program’s latest cost growth, but said GEO-3 and GEO-4 are on track to launch in late 2014 and late 2015, respectively.
Last May, following a decade of technical troubles and programmatic fits and starts that the GAO blames for driving unit costs up 230 percent to over $3 billion per satellite, the first SBIRS satellite finally reached orbit, joining two SBIRS payloads hosted on classified satellites in highly elliptical orbits. The constellation, together with the Air Force’s legacy Defense Support Program satellites, provides the United States with global, persistent surveillance of missile launches. The second of four dedicated geosynchronous SBIRS satellites Lockheed Martin currently is under contract to deliver is nearly finished, having cleared its final integrated systems testing in late March. The Air Force plans to begin ordering long-lead items for a fifth and sixth SBIRS satellite this year and issue a contract for the satellites themselves in 2013, Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, the commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, told Space News in early March.
In a March 21 report to Congress “DoD Faces Challenges in Fully Realizing Benefits of Satellite Acquisition Improvements,” the GAO said that GEO-3 and GEO-4 are facing a one-year production delay for the two satellites, in part because of technical challenges, parts obsolescence and test failures. “Along with the production delay, program officials are predicting a $438 million cost overrun for the 3rd and 4th GEO satellites,” the report states.
Cristina Chaplain, the GAO’s director of acquisition and sourcing management, told Space News April 4 those findings were taken from a recent DoD Selected Acquisition Report, the Pentagon’s periodic checkup on the cost, schedule and performance status of major programs.
Smith said GEO-3 and GEO-4 production encountered start-up pains because of the years-long gap many of Lockheed’s suppliers had to weather between parts orders for the second and third satellites. But those problems have been overcome, Smith said, and the GEO-3 spacecraft core is on track to be delivered in June followed by the payload in 2013.
“The lessons learned are don’t have a gap … in your supply chain of many, many, many years,” Smith said. “And with [SBIRS] 5 and 6 now right on top of 3 [and] 4, that is really going to help us here.”
Smith also said that all of the hardware for the third SBIRS highly elliptical orbit payload has been delivered to Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems in Azusa, Calif., where it is undergoing testing and will be delivered to the host satellite’s builder in January.
And while GEO-2 is nearly ready to ship, Smith said the Air Force does not anticipate launching it until March 2013. If that launch date holds, Smith said, GEO-2 will be put in storage until January, when it would be shipped to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., for launch aboard an Atlas 5 rocket.
GEO-1, meanwhile, is healthy in orbit and expected to begin operations by the end of the year. Smith said users are pleased with the quality of the data coming from GEO-1, Smith said.
Each geosynchronous SBIRS satellite has two main infrared sensors: a scanning sensor that sweeps over large swaths of territory watching for missile launches and a staring sensor that stays focused on a smaller area to provide immediate notification of launches.
Lockheed Martin said GEO-1 is undergoing certification that will culminate with in real-time availability of its scanning-sensor data by the end of the year, according to Lockheed Martin spokesman Michael Friedman
But the Air Force faces a wait of several years before the SBIRS system can provide that instant notification. Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told reporters here March 22 that the U.S. Air Force will not be able to exploit SBIRS staring sensor data in real time — military parlance for immediately — until at least 2016 because the associated ground-system software will not be completed until then. In the meantime, he said, the service is taking down data from the staring sensor and sending it to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, for analysis, he said.
The staring sensor represents a brand new capability; the legacy Defense Support Program satellites, which date back to the 1970s and remain the backbone of the U.S. early warning system, have only the scanning sensor.
Shelton said the Air Force ran into “money issues” on the SBIRS program that led it to focus on getting the first satellite into orbit while deferring work on the ground segment, Shelton said.
While Lockheed Martin has responsibility for SBIRS space and ground segments, Smith deferred to Air Force Space Command for comment on the operational impacts of the ground system delays.