The U.S. Defense Department’s plan to quickly procure a brand new satellite to plug a potential gap in the nation’s missile early warning constellation is the latest and most troubling fallout yet from the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) acquisition fiasco.

A sudden degradation of the existing Defense Support Program (DSP) missile warning constellation is what prompted the Pentagon’s pending request to reprogram $117 million in 2009 funds for the Geosynchronous Earth Orbit Infrared Gap Filler System. But the crash program, which likely will divert funding from other key space initiatives in the next several years, wouldn’t be necessary had SBIRS stayed anywhere near its original schedule. When SBIRS was put under contract in 1996, the first launch was slated to occur in 2002. Now, thanks to a dark comedy of errors ranging from misguided acquisition reform practices to U.S. Air Force budgetary shenanigans to the repeated inability of prime contractor Lockheed Martin to deliver what it signed up to deliver, the first satellite is not expected to launch until 2010.

Even more disturbing than the staggering cost growth on SBIRS, whose price tag has ballooned from around $3 billion to some $11 billion, is that the Pentagon, in spite of the tremendous resources it continues to pour into the program, is looking elsewhere to hedge against a blind spot in its missile warning coverage. SBIRS has gone from being a very expensive case study in acquisition mismanagement to a full-blown national security issue.

Air Force officials had long maintained that the repeated SBIRS delays, while costly and worrisome, were tolerable from a narrow national security perspective because of the robustness of the on-orbit DSP constellation, whose first satellites were launched in the early 1970s. But something happened recently with DSP that has changed the Pentagon’s risk calculus.

military officials won’t be specific about the nature of DSP’s problem. But according to a group of Russia-based researchers who manage a satellite observation network, a satellite believed to be DSP-23 began functioning abnormally in September. If they are correct, it would explain the Pentagon’s sense of urgency: DSP-23, the last satellite in the series, launched only a year ago; it likely was central to
plans for maintaining missile warning coverage before and during the long-delayed transition to SBIRS.

There might be disagreement within the Pentagon ranks as to whether the danger of a coverage gap is high enough to warrant a new satellite expected to cost $350 million to $800 million. But missile warning is not to be trifled with: The Pentagon and Congress must do anything and everything in their power to head off even a remote possibility that missile launches from any of the growing number of hotspots around the globe could go undetected by the
United States

That said, Congress is now being asked to throw
tax dollars at two different programs intended to perform the same mission concurrently; the gap-filler satellite would launch in 2014, the same year as the third SBIRS satellite and two years before the fourth, assuming current schedules hold. Lawmakers should therefore make their approval contingent on the Pentagon clearing a pair of high hurdles. First, the Pentagon must explain why it should order a new satellite rather than accelerate delivery of the fourth and fifth SBIRS satellites. If the proposed gap filler can be had sooner and for less money than SBIRS satellites No. 4 and 5 – which are not yet under contract – then the Pentagon must explain why it still makes sense to buy them.

Regardless of how this all plays out, one thing’s for certain: U.S. taxpayers are going to have to pony up yet again because of the SBIRS travails, and the money likely is going to come out of the hide of other important military space programs. One potential bill-payer is the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space office. According to Defense Department and industry sources, the Air Force has proposed reducing the budget for this office to $10 million annually over the next several years, which is not enough to undertake significant missions. This would be a mistake: this office is intended to incubate promising and innovative ideas for bringing space capabilities to bear quickly in response to emerging needs. The Pentagon needs to be doing more in this arena, not less.

In retrospect, it is safe to say SBIRS should have been canceled years ago, when it was clear the program was spinning out of control but there was still a window of opportunity to field an interim replacement similar to the gap-filler now being proposed. That window has long since closed – at least for the initial SBIRS satellites – and the damage continues to pile up.

As difficult and painful as it is, canceling high-priority programs that have gone awry is sometimes necessary to prevent even greater damage.
intelligence officials recognized this in 2005 when they axed the optical portion of the Future Imagery Architecture reconnaissance system before a single satellite was built.

If there is any good news, it is that SBIRS continues to serve as a stark reminder of the enduring consequences of badly flawed space acquisition practices. Highly respected experts in recent weeks have been warning that the
national security space management structure remains fraught with problems that, if not addressed, threaten to erode the nation’s edge in capabilities that both help win wars and preserve peace. Even with all the challenges it has on its plate, this is one the incoming administration of President-elect BarackObama cannot afford to ignore.