"I actually have a pretty good collection of Arms Control Today, which I have read throughout my career. It's one of the few really serious publications on arms control issues."

– Gary Samore
Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
GAO Faults Missile Defense Satellite Program

April 2001

By Wade Boese

The General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report February 28 warning that a satellite system being developed to play a key supporting role in future U.S. missile defenses is at "high risk" of not being delivered "on time or at cost or with expected performance."

The Space-Based Infrared System-low (SBIRS-low) satellite system is intended for use in tracking ballistic missiles in flight and to help national and theater missile defenses discriminate among warheads, decoys, and debris. When fully deployed, SBIRS-low will consist of approximately 24 satellites in low-earth orbit.

The SBIRS-low system is not seen as necessary for intercepting warheads with unsophisticated countermeasures, which the proposed U.S. national missile defense (NMD) is initially intended to defend against. But SBIRS-low will be "important" for dealing with sophisticated threats that missile defenses could face in the future, according to a spokesperson from the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. SBIRS-low will complement another satellite program under development, SBIRS-high, which will provide early warning of ballistic missile launches.

Current Pentagon plans call for the first launch of a SBIRS-low satellite in 2006, but GAO points out that the software needed to enable the satellites to support ballistic missile defenses will not be completed until 2008 and that the software to make the satellites fully operational will not be finished until 2010. Software for satellites is typically completed a full year before launch. This was the original plan for SBIRS-low, but when software development fell behind schedule, the SBIRS-low program office decided to develop the software in increments rather than postpone the first satellite launch.

GAO further highlighted that initial satellite production will begin in 2002 but that test data for finalizing the satellite design will not be available until 2008. Six SBIRS-low satellites in total will be launched into orbit during 2006 and 2007. The Pentagon will then test the satellites for a year to determine if any design changes or upgrades need to be made. During this time, production will continue on other SBIRS-low satellites so that, when the one-year testing period is completed, another three satellites will have been completely finished and another 21 will be in various stages of production at a cost of at least $1.9 billion. Any design changes necessitated by the testing could, therefore, increase cost and cause the program schedule to slip, according to GAO.

The government agency also noted that five of six critical satellite technologies, such as the scanning infrared sensor that is suppose to acquire a ballistic missile early in its flight, are currently judged to be immature by the SBIRS-low program office. GAO warned that, even if only one of the technologies is not ready when needed, the satellites will not be able to perform their missions.

GAO recommended that the SBIRS-low schedule be modified to reduce the concurrency between testing and production and that the Pentagon study alternatives to SBIRS-low in case the satellites cannot be deployed when needed. The Pentagon has developed a new schedule, though GAO said it "still appears to have high concurrency risk" and will not be reviewed for approval until May. The Pentagon has also undertaken a study on alternatives to SBIRS-low.