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Pentagon Keeps Satellite System, Nixes New Naval Missile Defense
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June 2002

By Wade Boese

A senior Pentagon official announced May 2 that a sophisticated satellite system for monitoring global ballistic missile launches would get a new lease on life, but a sea-based missile defense system cancelled last December would not be resurrected in any form.

Despite program troubles and climbing costs, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology Edward Aldridge told reporters that the Space-Based Infrared System-high (SBIRS-high) satellite constellation, which is being developed to replace existing satellites first launched in the early 1970s, was “essential” to U.S. national security and would be continued.

Originally projected to cost $1.8 billion, the SBIRS-high program has experienced an approximately $2 billion increase in engineering and manufacturing development, which does not take into account future procurement and operational costs. The Air Force requested $814 million for the program in the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2003 budget request, but the Senate Armed Services Committee has proposed trimming that amount by $100 million.

U.S. law requires that Pentagon programs with projected per unit cost increases greater than 25 percent be reviewed and certified by the secretary of defense, if they are to continue receiving funding. To avoid cancellation, a program must be deemed “essential” to national security. It must also be determined that no cheaper alternative program exists, that the costs are “reasonable,” and that the program’s management structure will keep future costs in check.

To enable its certification by Aldridge on May 2, the SBIRS-high program had begun to undergo restructuring. Aldridge said that the program’s primary private contractor, Lockheed Martin, took action to correct its performance and management, which Aldridge said the company recognized as needing “some serious adjustment.” A Lockheed spokesperson explained May 22 that the company had “assessed all key positions and assigned new leadership.”

Appearing May 15 before the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Secretary of the Air Force James Roche testified that SBIRS-high had been taken back to “square one.” He reported that an evaluation had revealed problems with the system’s “basics,” including its software and engineering.

Roche said the government would pay more attention to the program. Yet he cautioned senators that the program “is still in difficulty” and that he did not want them to believe “that we’ve got it fixed.”

Captain Dan Theisen, an Air Force spokesperson, said the first launch of a SBIRS-high satellite is scheduled to occur in fiscal year 2007 and that a fully operational system is expected to be in orbit around 2011. A completed system would be comprised of four satellites in geosynchronous earth orbit with additional sensors on two host satellites in a highly elliptical orbit.

Aldridge’s comments at his press briefing suggested a completed system is not guaranteed. He warned that if in six months SBIRS-high appeared to be “going south, I have no hesitation to pull the plug.”

Aldridge’s warning has credibility because he cancelled the Navy Area Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (NATBMD) system late last year for spiraling costs, poor performance, and schedule delays. The ship-based program aimed to destroy short- and medium-range ballistic missiles near the end of their flights.

Several days after killing the naval system, Aldridge said the Pentagon would develop a new system to perform the same mission, but on May 2 he said there would be no replacement program. One reason he offered was that a new program would be too expensive. “We do not need any more pressure on our budget resulting from a new start,” Aldridge explained.

Instead, the Pentagon will explore expanding the sea-based midcourse missile defense system, which is designed to strike short- and medium-range ballistic missiles while they are traveling through space, to perform the NATBMD mission.

The sea-based midcourse system is scheduled to attempt its first target intercept in June.