After lengthy delays, the Air Force has begun orbiting a new generation of heat-detecting satellites designed to provide early warning of hostile missile launches anywhere on the Earth’s surface. The program, called the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), pairs scanning and staring sensors on satellites in geosynchronous orbits, backed up by additional sensors hosted on eavesdropping satellites that fly orbits over the poles. The combined constellation will provide comprehensive, real-time coverage of every location from which a hostile missile might be launched, and also will detect other heat-generating phenomena such as jet afterburners and artillery muzzle flashes.
Missile warning is absolutely essential to national security, because you can’t deter a nuclear attack unless you know when one is happening. It is no exaggeration to say that America’s survival might one day depend on the successful functioning of the new constellation. However, recognizing the requirement for something and obtaining it in optimum fashion are not the same thing. In marking up the defense department’s fiscal 2013 budget request, House appropriators have posed a series of pointed questions about the way the Air Force is buying SBIRS that deserve detailed answers.
First, the appropriators want to know why the service proposes to buy the satellites in groups of two rather than three, implying that a “block buy” of three would allow prime contractor Lockheed Martin to deliver each one at a lower price. Second, the appropriators want to know why the Air Force is delaying acquisition of ground systems that would allow full utilization of the two sensors on each geosynchronous satellite; the scanning and staring sensors could be cueing off of each other to achieve faster and more detailed characterization of events, but under the current schedule they won’t do so for years to come. Third, the appropriators want to know whether the ground segment developed to control the satellites is robust enough to manage the full constellation and any future additions that might be made to it.
If you haven’t been following the long gestation of SBIRS, then you wouldn’t understand the concerns lying behind the issues appropriators are raising. With regard to how many satellites should be bought at a time, the concern used to be that the practice of only buying one satellite at a time was driving the cost of each one way up. If you purchase even two in a block buy and spread the money out incrementally over multiple budget years, the savings are extraordinary. The Air Force has now begun doing that. What House appropriators are asking in the 2013 markup is whether that approach wouldn’t work even better if the Air Force were to purchase three satellites in a single order, thereby minimizing any discontinuities in the workforce and supplier base supporting satellite production. The answer is that a block buy of three would almost certainly save more money.
On the subject of ground-segment enhancements, part of what the appropriators are saying is that the Air Force is too concerned with moving on to the next generation of technology, and it needs to focus more on obtaining optimum results from the technology it already has. Here again, the appropriators are right. As several reports have recently noted, purchase of ground equipment for new satellites tends to lag behind orbiting of spacecraft, so that there’s a delay before users can benefit from the full functionality of the satellites. That doesn’t mean the Air Force should neglect new concepts or evolutionary upgrades of the SBIRS space segment, but the top priority should be assuring that warfighters and decisionmakers are getting the full benefit of the investment made in new missile-warning satellites.
Find Archived Articles: