A s the Defense Department’s Executive Agent for Space, the U.S. Air Force has the privilege and the responsibility to provide critical space capabilities for our nation. One of those capabilities is a missile warning system. Space-based warning systems defend our forces abroad as well as the American homeland from ballistic missile attack.

Our current system for missile warning is the Defense Support Program (DSP), which has been providing our nation with missile warning and detection for more than three decades. The replacement for this system is the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), which has been in development since 1996. This program has faced many challenges and setbacks, which have led to cost increases and schedule delays. We know these capabilities are vital to our nation, and as a result of the latest Nunn-McCurdy review in December 2005, the Department of Defense recertified and restructured the program to give us a better way ahead. In addition to that, new Air Force leadership is changing space acquisition processes to return to proven tactics for delivering capabilities on time and on schedule.

When the Defense Department recertified the SBIRS program for Geosynchronous satellites 1 and 2, they also initiated a parallel program, the Alternative Infrared Satellite System (AIRSS) to provide an option to meet the critical requirement for missile early warning. AIRSS is designed to provide DSP-like capabilities while taking advantage of less-complex design, use of proven technologies and the significant improvements in sensor technology since work originally started on SBIRS. The program focuses on evaluation of alternative sensor architectures, technology risk reduction and exploiting current technologies.

The continuity and integrity of our space-based missile warning constellation is our top priority. AIRSS is required to perform the same capabilities as the DSP satellites flying today, so schedule risk is low. That schedule is based on extensive experience with programs of similar complexity. Our goals for this program include reducing complexity and constraining technology wizardry and requirements creep — potential problems we will ruthlessly constrain in this alternative effort.

The U.S. government has sponsored significant advancements in focal plane technology, sensor design and spacecraft manufacturing since the SBIRS program initiated in 1996. Those advancements include “wide field of view sensors,” but the decision to use them for AIRSS is contingent on such sensors having demonstrated maturity. Other options also are being considered.

Designing a space system is not easy, but is critically important. The Air Force acknowledges the risks inherent in new technology and will incorporate only proven hardware and software in the initial AIRSS design, apportioning higher risk components to later versions of the program. This approach will provide the most modern and effective solutions with more predictable schedules and cost. The bottom line is that AIRSS will have a simpler design, use proven technologies, reduce the program risk and not only will meet the requirements but will allow us to do so in a way that will meet cost and schedule constraints.

Ron Sega, the under secretary of the Air Force and the Defense Department executive agent for space, is setting the tone for getting back to proven practices to successfully deliver systems to our nation and our military warfighters. Between us, we have more than half a century of experience as space researchers, developers and operators. Our goal is to restore our credibility with Congress, industry and our customers as we deliver military space capabilities for the nation.

Gary Payton is deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs.