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January 19, 2011
GAO Faults Missile Defense Satellite Plan
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Wade Boese

Despite a recent revamping and name change, a satellite program to aid missile defense missions is still not on the right path, according to a May report by the General Accounting Office (GAO).

Formerly known as the Space-Based Infrared System-low (SBIRS-low), the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) is set to have its first two satellites launched in 2007. GAO, which conducts studies for Congress, reported that the two satellites are to be built from equipment shelved four years ago and that they will not serve as the design model for future STSS satellites. Focusing near-term efforts on building these two satellites rather than exploring and developing a new satellite design is not the best strategy, GAO indicated.

GAO explained that putting off work on a newer satellite “will merely delay the opportunity to learn more about a design that could offer a future operational capability.”

Over the next six years, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency has budgeted roughly $1 billion to complete work on the first two satellites and $1.3 billion for developing the next generation satellite, which is supposed to be launched in 2011. Projected spending for fiscal year 2004 calls for using 92 percent of STSS funding to make the first two satellites operational.

STSS is intended to be a system capable of detecting a missile launch, tracking the missile’s entire flight, and relaying that information quickly to missile defense systems so they can try to intercept the missile. As SBIRS-low, the system was also intended to be able to discriminate a warhead from any decoys that might be accompanying it, but that requirement has been dropped for now. SBIRS-low was overhauled because of cost overruns, schedule delays, and poor performance.

GAO noted that developing space-based systems for missile defense has proved difficult. Despite spending billions of dollars since 1984 on such projects, GAO noted that the Pentagon “has not launched a single satellite or demonstrated any space-based missile tracking capabilities from space using technologies similar to those to be used by STSS.” GAO further identified seven specific capabilities that still needed to be demonstrated for satellites tasked with missile defense missions. Those include an ability to track a missile warhead in space from thousands of kilometers away and passing that tracking data to other satellites and systems.

GAO warned that the current STSS approach is ill conceived. The Pentagon is “at risk of repeating past mistakes because it has made decisions that are largely focused on meeting its 2007 launch date rather than making sure the satellites and ground station can work as intended and that it can gain the maximum knowledge at the lowest cost.”