BOSTON — The programmatic outlook for two military space systems, one for missile warning and the other for in-orbit surveillance, has gone from bleak to bright in just a few short months, senior U.S. Air Force officials said.
Work on the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning program has progressed so well that the Air Force is rethinking last year’s decision to curtail the number of satellites it would purchase from five to no more than three, said Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel, commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. The Space Based Space Surveillance System (SBSS), meanwhile, has survived a brush with outright cancellation, according to Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of Air Force Space Command.
Chilton and Hamel discussed a number of military space programs during a Nov. 17 press briefing called to announce that the first SBIRS payload, hosted aboard a classified satellite, is on orbit and undergoing testing. The briefing was held in conjunction with the Air Force Association’s annual National Symposium on Space in Beverly Hills, Calif., and reporters who were not on location participated via telephone.
Chilton said he considered recommending that the SBSS be terminated due to possible duplication with unspecified other programs. But he said he now feels better about the SBSS program based on an ongoing study of U.S. space surveillance capabilities.
Back in September, Hamel said the SBSS program was ordered restructured due to delays and cost growth but is now on track for a first launch in 2008. That satellite could be followed by others of the same design, Hamel said.
Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif., is building the first SBSS satellite under a contract awarded in March 2004 and which at the time was valued at $189 million. The Air Force has not yet disclosed the cost of the restructured program.
During the Nov. 17 press briefing, Hamel said the first SBSS satellite entered its critical design review earlier in the week.
The SBSS system will replace the Midcourse Space Experiment, a missile-tracking demonstration satellite launched in 1996 whose mission evolved to space surveillance.
Space surveillance has become a top priority for the Air Force space officials in recent years, and Chilton has said on multiple occasions he wants to make major improvements in this area. He said during the briefing that the Air Force needs to bring situational awareness for space to the same standards now held for land, sea and the air. Today, for example, it can take days to determine if an adversary’s satellite has changed position, a time lag he said would be deemed unacceptable if the object in question were an enemy truck, ship or aircraft.
Space surveillance has become more challenging since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chilton said. During the Cold War, the Pentagon faced one adversary with significant space capability ; it now faces dozens , he said.
Despite the need for better on-orbit surveillance capabilities, Chilton said that upon taking over at Space Command last summer he questioned whether SBSS was necessary given other assets at the Air Force’s disposal. He ordered a study of the military’s space surveillance capabilities, which though ongoing, has convinced him that the SBSS is needed.
SBIRS, meanwhile, has undergone review as a follow-up to the restructuring of the long-troubled program that took place in December 2005, Hamel said. That review, which took place earlier in the week, involved Kenneth Krieg, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, Hamel said.
Hamel was upbeat about SBIRS back in September, and during the Nov. 17 press briefing said the recent review has further buoyed his confidence. He noted that the first SBIRS sensor, hosted on a classified satellite in highly elliptical orbit, is performing well in on-orbit testing.
The Air Force initially planned to buy five dedicated SBIRS satellites — which will operate in geosynchronous orbit — fromof Sunnyvale, Calif. However, as part of the restructuring last year, Krieg said the Air Force would purchase no more than three and possibly only two dedicated satellites before moving on to a new system called the Alternative Infrared Satellite System.
Now the Air Force is having second thoughts. In a Nov. 7 interview, Hamel said the Pentagon could decide by next summer to buy all five geosynchronous SBIRS satellites and defer the Alternative Infrared Satellite System .
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a think tank based in Arlington, Va., said launching all five SBIRS satellites likely is the only viable option for ensuring missile warning continuity. It is unrealistic to believe the Alternative Infrared Satellite System could be developed quickly enough to avoid a gap in coverage, he said.