The U.S. Defense Department is holding out the possibility that the first of its new generation of missile warning satellites can be launched without major software modifications despite problems that cropped up during testing earlier this year, according to a Pentagon source


Pentagon acquisition chief John Young has asked Lockheed Martin Corp., the prime contractor on the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), to conduct additional testing on the first satellite to determine whether it can be launched without the changes, which could result in a 12-18 month delay and $300 million-$550 million in additional cost growth, the official said. The satellite currently is scheduled to launch in 2009.

The testing is expected to take about a month, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity


Young was briefed on the SBIRS options Nov. 28 by U.S. Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, who had warned in a September memo that the software problems could result in a year

long delay and as much as $1 billion in cost growth on the long-troubled program.


the satellite’s software performs well during the newly ordered testing,

the Pentagon could opt to launch it without making major changes, the official said. In that case there would still be a six-month delay, the official said.

The Air Force discovered the


following testing

in January intended to gauge how the first satellite

would react to the stresses of

the space environment

. Pentagon officials are concerned about a possible link between those software problems and the on-orbit failure of a classified satellite around that same time.

Meanwhile, a Defense Department review team recommended earlier in November

against a

major change to the military’s missile-warning satellite acquisition plans

. The Pentagon

currently is committed to buying three dedicated SBIRS satellites, with options for two more.

Wynne raised the possibility

of moving to an alternative design following the third SBIRS

satellite in his

September memorandum to Young, but the review team found

the so-called Third Generation Infrared Surveillance System, formerly the Alternative Infrared Surveillance System

, is not likely to be ready in time, the official said.

That makes the purchase of a fourth SBIRS satellite likely, the official said, but a fifth is not

a certainty.

The Pentagon will make a decision

based on the initial on-orbit performance of the first SBIRS satellite, the official said.

The Pentagon’s planned budget request of

around $125 million in 2009 for the alternative effort will not support having something ready to launch

around 2017 in lieu of a

fifth SBIRS satellite, the source said. Therefore, an

additional $75 million

likely would be needed in 2009 to

preserve that option

, the official said.

The review team also found that the Pentagon’s missile warning constellation

likely will be robust enough to maintain sufficient global coverage even if

the first or second SBIRS satellite is lost in a launch or on-orbit failure, the official said.

What this means is that an interim satellite to plug a potential gap in coverage – at a cost of around $1 billion – probably will not be necessary, this official said. The gap-filler satellite was under discussion even before the latest SBIRS problems came to light.

A key factor in the review team’s assessment likely was the successful launch in early November of the last of the current-generation Defense Support Program missile warning satellites


If the Pentagon were to lose one of the first two SBIRS satellites, it

likely would be able to

compensate by adjusting

the coverage of the other

satellites and supplement that by

aerial assets, the official said. That solution, while not ideal, would provide sufficiently adequate coverage and render unnecessary the expenditure on a gap-filler satellite, the official said.

In a written statement, Steve Tatum, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., deferred to the Pentagon for comment on the Nov. 28 SBIRS meeting. He said the first SBIRS satellite is undergoing “baseline integrated system” testing in advance of environmental testing.

Development of the first two SBIRS satellites “is proceeding and we are confident in our path forward to successfully execute this vital national security program and sustain the on-orbit missile surveillance satellite constellation,” Tatum said.