WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s future missile warning satellite constellation will be among the first programs to be subjected to a service-wide acquisition reform initiative that will closely engage industry to help find the most favorable trade-offs between cost and capability, a senior service official said.

The idea is to identify relatively small compromises on system requirements that can yield big savings, Deborah Lee James, the Air Force secretary, said Jan. 14.

The Air Force’s current-generation Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites, two of which are on orbit, represent a dramatic leap in capability over the legacy Defense Support Program satellites, some of which are still in operation. However, SBIRS is notorious for its lengthy delays and massive cost overruns during development. Originally expected to cost $4.8 billion, the program is now expected to cost nearly $19 billion.

When fully deployed, SBIRS will consist of four dedicated satellites in geosynchronous orbit, two infrared sensors hosted aboard classified satellites in highly elliptical orbit, and ground systems. In addition to the two dedicated satellites, the two elliptical-orbit sensors are in operation.
A total of six SBIRS satellites are under contract to Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, California.

As is the case with most of its major space programs, the Air Force is analyzing a wide range of alternatives for its next-generation missile warning constellation. At the same time, the service has put Lockheed Martin under contract to study ways to reduce the cost of SBIRS satellites beyond those now under contract. Air Force officials want to cut the price tag of the next two dedicated satellites, known as GEO-7 and GEO-8, by 30 percent or more.

The new acquisition reform initiative, called “Bending the Cost Curve,” represents another potential avenue to saving money on whatever follows the current SBIRS program. James unveiled the initiative in a speech to the Atlantic Council here and said it would first be applied to four major programs, including the next-generation missile warning satellites.

“We think that by gathering data from a range of sources, it should be possible to identify instances where small changes in capability have a large impact on cost,” James said. “This, in turn, should mean that the Air Force can develop much more affordable weapon systems.”

The initiative is intended to foster and take advantage of better communication and transparency between the service and industry. Past efforts to find favorable trades between requirements and cost have not included input from contractors, James said.

“Our new process will allow us to directly engage industry as we develop an understanding of how to best evaluate our objective and threshold requirements,” she said.
James offered the hypothetical example of a jet that might be required to fly 800 kilometers per hour. But if contractors are able to show that the Air Force could save a bundle of money by loosening that requirement to, say, 725 kilometers per hour, the Air Force would give that idea serious consideration.

Meanwhile, the Air Force continues to study alternative approaches to providing missile warning from space including new technologies, and different constellation architectures and deployment arrangements such as hosted payloads. These studies are being carried with the Space Modernization Initiative funding that makes up a small portion of the budgets for all of its operational space programs.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.