U.S. House Panel Balks at Air Force Hosted Payload Plans

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WASHINGTON — A U.S. congressional panel responsible for defense spending has recommended putting the brakes on the U.S. Air Force’s budding effort to test missile warning sensor technology using commercial satellites as host platforms.

In its markup of the 2013 defense spending bill, the House Appropriations Committee rejected the Air Force’s proposal to devote $12.6 million of its Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) modernization budget to hosted payload activities. The Air Force is hoping to develop a follow-up to its successful Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) mission that saw an experimental missile warning sensor launched aboard a commercial telecommunications satellite last year.

The Air Force’s SBIRS funding request includes $454 million for continued procurement of a new generation of Lockheed Martin-built missile warning satellites and $449 million for research and development, including modernization initiatives like the hosted payload activity, according to markup documents posted May 17 by the House Appropriations Committee. The panel approved the full request for SBIRS satellite procurement while increasing the research and development funding line by $68 million. That figure was reached by adding $100 million for SBIRS ground systems while subtracting $32 million from modernization activities including hosted payloads.

“The Committee is concerned that, in a time of declining budgets, the Air Force and Department of Defense may resort to silver bullet acquisition concepts in an attempt to save money and accelerate immature concepts and technologies,” lawmakers said in the report accompanying the proposed bill.

Noting the problems and resulting lessons learned on space system acquisition programs in recent years, the report said, “Quick-fix substitutes for years of hard-won experience are attractive but illusory.”

The report said the Air Force should focus on ground system rather than sensor enhancements to improve its overall missile warning capability.

The Air Force initiated development of what became known as CHIRP in 2006 as part of an effort to field an early replacement for SBIRS, which was massively over budget and far behind schedule. The Air Force canceled the replacement program after being convinced that Lockheed Martin was finally on track with SBIRS, but opted to complete development of the sensor as a trailblazer for hosted payloads.

CHIRP is operating aboard the SES-2 telecommunications satellite owned by SES and has observed several missile and rocket launches to date, Air Force officials say. The sensor was built by SAIC, the satellite by Orbital Sciences Corp.

While the current CHIRP mission is focused on strategic missile warning, the proposed follow-on would examine the full range of surveillance capabilities provided by on-orbit infrared sensors, according to an industry official.

Air Force and industry officials have said a hosted payload solution is not viable for the strategic missile warning mission because commercial satellites do not have the necessary protection against the radiation resulting from a nuclear blast. However, they said the tactical missile warning mission could conceivably be carried out by commercially hosted sensors.

 

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