SBIRS Becomes High-cost Priority Amid Cuts

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The protection of funding upgrades for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) is one of the agency’s top fiscal year 2013 priorities but it also is an example of why hosted payloads ultimately may become a highly appealing alternative for the military.

The procurement of any dedicated Defense Department satellites is a long-term expense that warrants careful review before the U.S. government heads down a potentially slippery slope of funding a program that could prove to be too costly to sustain in an era of major budget reductions. With the U.S. military budget slated for big cuts in fiscal 2013, tough choices are ahead that require scaling back or ending certain programs to preserve others.

The U.S. Air Force’s $950 million fiscal 2013 request for SBIRS Research, Development, Test and Evaluation and Procurement involves funding the construction and launch of four new satellites for a number of years. The funding specifically would cover ground development and continuing development of the SBIRS satellites GEO-3 and GEO-4, as well as procurement of GEO-5 and GEO-6.

The Air Force’s budget also requests the use of advance appropriations to fully fund GEO-5 and GEO-6.

Congressional support for the program is continuing thus far. Space News reported on May 21 that the House Appropriations defense subcommittee allocated $68 million more to SBIRS than requested to speed up the ground equipment needed to track missiles as accurately as possible [“House Adds Funding To Accelerate SBIRS Capability,” page 15].

However, one especially hefty cost of the SBIRS funding is to cover obsolescence expenses that ultimately are budgeted by the Defense Department to total $750.5 million for the GEO-3 and GEO-4 satellites, as well as $323.8 million for the GEO-5 and GEO-6 spacecraft, according to the request.

The role of SBIRS and the legacy Defense Support Program spacecraft is to provide early warning notification about missile threats to allow warfighters to take swift action, Gen. William Shelton, commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, testified March 8 before the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.

Gil Klinger, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space and intelligence within the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, told the same panel that the protection of SBIRS funding upgrades is a priority.

According to a March 30 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the research and development cost of the entire program in October 1996 was estimated to be $4.4 billion, but it had soared 165 percent to $11.6 billion by July 2011. Since the 1996 estimates omitted procurement costs due to the Air Force’s plan to use research and development funds to buy five satellites, the Defense Department’s July 2011 projection included an additional $6.4 billion. The program also ultimately added a sixth satellite that was not part of the 1996 cost estimate.

In total, the GAO reported that SBIRS would cost $18.3 billion, up 297.4 percent from a total program cost projected at $4.6 billion in 1996. Such cost overruns are daunting in a time of Defense Department cutbacks that may worsen as the U.S. government needs to find ways to trim annual budget deficits of $1 trillion.

Not only is cost a concern, but so are program delays, the GAO found. Indeed, the first SBIRS satellite was launched in May 2011 — roughly nine years later than planned. Not only was the satellite almost a decade late, it also lacked key capabilities, the GAO reported.

Specifically, the satellite was launched without a fully developed ground system or the flight software needed to automatically recover if an unforeseen failure occurs. According to program officials, the ground system will not be able to meet all of its operational requirements until at least 2018, the GAO found.

Although the first in-orbit satellite has begun testing, its planned operational certification in late 2012 likely will be delayed until early 2013, the GAO report indicated.

In addition, the cost of the third and fourth satellites is expected to grow “significantly,” the GAO confirmed. Specifically, the Air Force is projecting a cost overrun of $438 million and a one-year delay for these two satellites, the GAO said.

Officials at Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the SBIRS satellites, countered in an April 9 Space News article that the GEO-3 and GEO-4 satellites are on track to launch in late 2014 and 2015, respectively, and that the cost overruns in the program are not as high as the GAO estimates [“Lockheed Denies Latest SBIRS Satellites Are Behind Schedule,” page 14].

The SBIRS program has revised its baseline acquisition costs and set new satellite and ground system delivery milestones, but the Defense Department has yet to approve those changes, the GAO reported.

In defense of SBIRS, its program office indicated that the first satellite launched with all of the software that it needed to support vehicle health and safety, and is collecting higher-quality data than expected. The satellite is moving to its operational location, and program officials expect trial operations to last from November 2012 to January 2013.

The SBIRS follow-on production contract is delivering flight hardware, but is incurring cost and schedule pressure due to parts obsolescence and technical issues. Program officials attribute the problem to an eight-year production gap between the first two satellites and the third and fourth ones.

The cost overruns and delays are worth noting, since the acquisition strategy for the fifth and sixth satellites is pending. In addition, the program is seeking approval to release requests for proposals and contract awards for those two spacecraft.

Two of the main benefits of using commercial satellites to carry military payloads are to expedite the speed at which capabilities can be deployed in orbit and to sharply reduce the cost that accompanies building and launching dedicated satellites. Those advantages could cause Defense Department officials and lawmakers in Congress to consider hosted payloads as a viable and serious alternative for military missions in the future.

 

Paul Dykewicz is a seasoned journalist who has covered the development of satellite television, satellite radio, satellite broadband and hosted payloads.