The U.S. Air Force likely has time to iron out any remaining technical difficulty with its next generation of missile warning satellites without risking a gap in coverage before the current constellation reaches the end of its useful life, according to the service’s departing top official.

There will be concern if the new satellites are not launched by early in the next decade, said acting Air Force Secretary Peter B. Teets, who retired March 25.

Teets has served as the Pentagon’s point man on space acquisition issues since being sworn in as undersecretary of the Air Force and director of the National Reconnaissance Office in late 2001. In late January he also became the acting Air Force secretary and its acting acquisition chief.

The Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites on orbit today are operating far past their initial projected lifetime. So far that has prevented the Air Force from experiencing any gaps in its missile warning coverage due to the repeated delays on the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High, Teets told reporters during a March 22 discussion at the Pentagon.

Without the longer than expected life of the DSP satellites, the Air Force would be facing a missile warning “crisis,” Teets said.

The SBIRS High program involves four satellites that will be placed in geostationary orbit, a spare spacecraft, two infrared sensors riding on classified satellites in highly elliptical orbits and ground equipment.

The SBIRS High satellites were initially expected to cost about $2 billion and to start launching beginning in 2002. Those satellites, which are built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Sunnyvale, Calif., are now projected to cost about $10 billion and slated to start launching in 2008.

The precise status of the DSP constellation is classified, but Teets said that the Air Force could be in a difficult position if the first SBIRS High satellite does not launch before the 2010 to 2012 timeframe. A likely hard deadline for launching the first SBIRS High satellite without facing a missile warning gap is 2015, he said.

The Air Force is planning to launch the last of the DSP satellites this fall aboard the inaugural flight of Boeing Co.’s Delta 4 heavy-lift rocket, which failed to put its payloads in orbit during a demonstration launch in December.

Gen. Lance Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command, declined to comment on the status of the DSP fleet, but said in a brief interview March 9 that the military cannot afford to lose the Defense Support Program spacecraft in a launch mishap.

The Air Force notified Congress earlier this month that the cost of the third through fifth SBIRS High satellites would likely grow by at least 15 percent due largely to component obsolescence issues that are the result of the schedule delays on the program, Teets said. The cost likely will rise to $11 or $12 billion by the time that the satellites launch, he said.

Teets indicated he was disappointed that he was unable to bring the cost of SBIRS High and other space development efforts that had begun in the 1990s under control during his tenure as undersecretary of the Air Force, which began in December 2001, and said he was “not very happy” with Lockheed Martin’s performance.

Steve Tatum, a Lockheed Martin spokesman, acknowledged that the company has run into “challenges” with the development of the SBIRS High satellites, but said the company ha s built up momentum in recent months with the delivery of the first highly elliptical payload, and expects to deliver the second payload within the next few weeks.

Work on the geostationary satellites also is progressing well, and the company has beefed up the program staff with subject matter experts drawn from around Lockheed Martin to ensure mission success, Tatum said.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, Teets said there are obvious solutions for getting better control of programs like SBIRS High, which began at a time when the Pentagon had shifted much of the oversight for its programs to its contractors.

The Air Force has moved away from this practice, and added a space acquisition policy in late 2003 that calls for additional testing early in programs that could help root out problems before they become major disruptions, Teets said.

However, programs like SBIRS High that began before the new acquisition policy may continue to experience problems due to the poor level of Air Force attention early in the development phase, Teets said.

One measure Teets took to establish greater oversight of programs like SBIRS High was to hold weekly meetings and insist on frequent updates on the status of the development efforts.

Teets’ top deputy for military space issues, Robert Dickman, who also spent considerable time monitoring the progress of programs like SBIRS High, left the service in February to serve as executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and has yet to be replaced.

Teets expressed confidence that Michael Dominguez, the service’s assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, who will take over Teets’ Air Force duties on a temporary basis beginning March 28, will be able to carry out these duties until the Air Force begins filling the holes with a new secretary in the near future.