Artist's concept of SBIRS satellite. Credit: U.S. Air Force

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Defense Department plans to decide the future makeup of two of the Air Force’s most valuable satellite programs before year’s end, the Pentagon’s acquisition czar said Feb. 23.

Frank Kendall, the Defense Department’s undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said the Air Force is wrapping up long-running studies on two next-generation programs: its missile-warning program, known as the Space Based Infrared System, or SBIRS, and its protected communication system, known as the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites, or AEHF.

Both programs are nearing the end of production and the Air Force will need new satellites on orbit in the mid-2020s.

“The intention is to make decisions within this administration about the follow-on programs,” Kendall said during a speech at the Washington Space Business Roundtable. “We are now in the process of working our way through, figuring out what to do on the follow-ons to those systems. One of the things that is driving our thought processes is the changing nature of the threat in space and how we’re going to respond to that. We haven’t made final decisions on those but we intend to over the next several months.”

In both instances, the Pentagon is considering whether to break apart the strategic mission and tactical missions and place them on separate satellites or keep them together on the same satellite as is current practice. For SBIRS, that strategic element includes detection of a nuclear detonation. For AEHF, that means providing protected communications following a nuclear attack.

Both schemes fit with the so-called disaggregation model the Air Force is exploring for several satellite programs.

“The natural evolutionary course of our systems has been ever more expensive, more capable satellites for these types of missions,” Kendall said. “One of the questions we have: Is that the right approach for the future given that these assets are threatened much more than they perceive to be in the past?”

SBIRS and AEHF are among the Air Force’s most expensive constellations and have been part of long-running studies, known as analyses of alternatives, both of which were expected to be completed last year.

The SBIRS program, with a current program cost of $19.2 billion, includes two satellites and two sensors already on orbit and four other satellites that would launch between now and 2021, according to the Government Accountability Office. The GAO said in an April 2015 report that a new system will be needed by 2025.


AEHF is a $14.6 billion program with three satellites on orbit and a fourth expected to launch next year. Two more satellites are in production.

In new budget documents released earlier this month, the Air Force said it planned for substantial investment in the evolution of both programs. This included nearly $800 million for SBIRS and $1.3 billion for AEHF in 2021.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor on both 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.