GAO Calls for Review of Missile Defense Satellite Program

Wade Boese

The General Accounting Office (GAO) recently recommended that the Pentagon review a missile defense satellite system because of lingering problems that could result in major program cost and schedule overruns. The Air Force just restructured the program last year following a critical review of the system.

Initiated in 1996, the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS)-high program has been “burdened by immature technologies, unclear requirements, unstable funding, underestimated software complexity, and other problems,” GAO stated in an Oct. 31 report on the program.

SBIRS-high is intended to replace the Pentagon’s current constellation of Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites. The DSP satellites have been operating for more than 30 years and provide information on worldwide missile launches, among other tasks. The new system is also intended to gather intelligence and provide timely battlefield information to U.S. troops.

Yet, SBIRS-high is far from proving it can handle these missions. GAO noted that testing earlier this year revealed that the first infrared sensor to be deployed as part of the system demonstrated “several deficiencies” in the sensor’s ability to “maintain earth coverage” and to track missiles.

As such problems have emerged, the SBIRS-high price tag has more than doubled. Originally projected to cost $1.8 billion to research and develop, the system is currently budgeted at $4.4 billion.

The system’s development troubles have led to significant delays. The Pentagon initially planned to begin fielding SBIRS-high components between 1999 and 2004, but the first delivery of sensors for two of the system’s satellites has slipped from February 2002 to at least December 2003, while the launch of the first of four other satellites making up the system has been pushed back from 2004 to 2006.

Frustrated by the system’s lack of progress, the Pentagon ordered a review that led to the Air Force restructuring the program in August 2002. Although there have been improvements in oversight of the program, GAO concluded that there are continuing schedule and cost risks that merit the program being reviewed again—an assessment the Pentagon shares.

In May, GAO reported that a complementary satellite system to SBIRS-high, the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (formerly SBIRS-low), was also beset with problems. (See ACT, June 2003.) As originally conceived, SBIRS-high was to provide the early warning of a hostile missile launch, while SBIRS-low was to provide more detailed tracking information on the target cluster to help a missile interceptor distinguish between an enemy warhead and any potential decoys that might be accompanying it. The overhauled and renamed SBIRS-low program is still supposed to help track a missile during its entire flight, but the requirement that it must discriminate between warheads and decoys has been postponed for now, according to the May GAO report.