The USA’s “SBIRS High” missile launch early-warning satellites, which aim to replace the existing DSP fleet, have been facing
ongoing project issues. Massive cost overruns, technical challenges that continue to present problems, and uncertain performance all factor into the equation. Yet their mission – to detect ballistic missile launches and so serve as the critical first stage of the USA’s national early warning system – is too critical to abandon. What to do?
While some progress has been made on SBIRS-High, the search for alternative technologies is now well underway in a program called AIRSS the Alternate InfraRed Satellite System, also known as 3GIRS (3rd Generation Infrared Surveillance). The effort progressed well, but despite good performance and cost-effective development, the program is facing its end in the FY 2011 budget:
* For Every Action… SBIRS-High From $4B to $10+B
* Reaction: AIRSS & the “Full-Earth Sharing Sensor Assembly” [updated]
* AIRSS/3GIRS Contracts & Key Events [updated]
* Additional Readings [updated]
For Every Action… SBIRS-High From $4B to $10+B
Government Accountability Office report #GAO-07-96, “SPACE ACQUISITIONS / DOD Needs to Take More Action to Address Unrealistic Initial Cost Estimates of Space Systems,” singled out the SBIRS-High program for criticism:
“Costs for DOD space acquisitions over the past several decades have consistently been underestimated–sometimes by billions of dollars. For example, Space Based Infrared System High program costs were originally estimated at $4 billion, but the program is now estimated to cost over $10 billion… For the most part, cost growth has not been caused by poor cost estimating, but rather the tendency to start programs before knowing whether requirements can be achieved within available resources–largely because of pressures to secure funding. At the same time, however, unrealistic program office cost estimates have exacerbated space acquisition problems. Specifically, with budgets originally set at unrealistic amounts, DOD has had to resort to continually shifting funds to and from programs, and such shifts have had costly, reverberating effects. Our analyses of six ongoing space programs found that original cost estimates were particularly unrealistic about the promise of savings from increased contractor program management responsibilities, the constancy and availability of the industrial base, savings that could be accrued from heritage systems, the amount of weight growth that would occur during a program, the availability of mature technology, the stability of funding, the stability of requirements, and the achievability of planned schedules.”
SBIRS-High continued to be a problem program for many years, but for a long time, the USAF was trapped. It could not abandon missile warning. Nor could it continue to rely exclusively on DSP satellites, even though they were remaining in service longer than expected.
Its only only was to “pay and pray.” Until 2006 ushered in an element that had been missing from the equation: competition.
Reaction: AIRSS & the “Full-Earth Sharing Sensor Assembly”
The primary mission of AIRSS/ 3GIRS is detecting strategic and theater ballistic missiles in their launch and boost phases, then providing missile warning for the U.S. and its allies. The AIRSS program aims at a developmental approach with modest technical risks, rather than SBIRS-High’s revolutionary improvements. The US Air Force projects availability for launch by FY 2015.
In an October 16, 2006 release, Raytheon explains:
The Alternate Infrared Satellite System program, as it is known, calls for Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems to design and build a developmental integrated sensor assembly for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. The Air Force is seeking to develop a solution with lower cost and risk than the geosynchronous missile warning satellite in parallel development by another contractor for the third Space Based Infrared System.
“The program takes advantage of a single full-earth staring instrument to look for infrared plumes and provide early warning of ballistic missile launches,” said Brian Arnold, vice president for Strategic Systems. “The lack of moving parts allows for a lighter, more affordable payload and fewer opportunities for component failure, while the non-moving, wide-angle infrared optics capture the earth’s surface at high fidelity.”
The staring approach enabled by the large focal plane array also will allow the warfighter to detect infrared events of brief duration, such as the activity of short-range theater missiles.
Expected in 2008, a decision to produce either system will depend on the developmental success of the geosynchronous satellites and the maturity of the technology demonstrated by the Alternative Infrared Satellite System, according to the Air Force. The Raytheon effort follows the back-to-basics approach directed by Dr. Ronald Sega, under secretary of the Air Force. The fast-paced program is scheduled to complete critical design review next spring and deliver hardware a year later.”
Raytheon and SAIC proceeded to deliver on those goals, and infrared sensors were in the USAF’s hands 18 months after the program began. Testing reportedly went well, and a staring infrared sensor with a hemisphere-wide field of view promised reliability advantages over the mechanically-moved sensors on board current DSP, and future SBIRS GEO, satellites.
Unfortunately for 3GIRS, it had started too late. After it began, SBIRS-High remain generally on track, and moved toward deployment. 3GIRS became a lower cost follow on project in 2007, rather than a replacement contender. SBIRS High Elliptical Orbit (SBIRS HEO) payloads performed missions, and SBIRS GEO ironed out its problems and found itself deep in the satellite buy cycle, with most of its satellites and payloads set as firm contractual commitments.
It was too late for a contender that promised better performance at lower cost. In February 2010, the FY 2011 budget recommended that the Pentagon should end the 3GIRS program.
AIRSS/3GIRs: Contracts & Key Events
Unless otherwise noted, the Headquarters Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, CA issues the contracts.
Feb 2/10: A Pentagon document [PDF] confirms that 3GIRS is being recommended for cancellation as an “unneeded program.”
Jan 15/10: Reuters reports that AIRSS/ 3GIRS is one of several programs on the chopping block for the FY 2011 budget, based on internal Pentagon documents that were leaked to the news service. With SBIRS GEO late and over-budget, but on track, the better-performing 3GIRS program is deemed superfluous.
March 2/09: Raytheon announces successful performance testing of 3GIRS central infrared sensor. The test program, conducted at Raytheon’s space manufacturing facility in El Segundo, included vibration, electromagnetic interference and thermal vacuum conditions to confirm performance in a simulated space environment.
Raytheon Space Systems group VP Bill Hart also highlights the reliability advance that 3GIRS represents, as both DSP and SBIRS-High sensors rely on mechanical scanning of the sensors. The first-of-its-kind 3GIRS staring sensor uses Raytheon’s large-format focal-plane arrays, which can monitor an entire hemisphere from a single telescope. Ratheon also reiterates its claim that 3GIRS will be able to detect and track dimmer objects than sensors in current operation, including those used in SBIRS-High.
July 3/08: USAF Space and Missile Systems Center’s Developmental Planning Directorate announces a $65 million firm-fixed-price contract to Americom Government Services of McLean, VA. The firm will host an experimental sensor on a commercial spacecraft manifested for launch in 2010; the contractor shall also provide associated validation and assessment services to access the utility of the experimental sensor. The Demonstration Phase shall assess the sensor’s utility in terms of data, performance validation, and interoperability.
March 31/08: Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, CA receives a contract for $31.1 million, in order to conduct research and development in accordance with their AIRSS risk reduction plan. Their main focus will be on upgrading the integrated sensor assembly components to yield a configuration that fits into the available space. These upgrades will allow enhanced ground environmental testing of the sensor assembly in order to determine that it is a “Space Qualified” design, and will also help reduce the risk associated with building space qualification satellite units in the future. At this time $18.75 million has been committed. Kirtland AFB in NM issued the contract (FA9453-06-C-0378, P00010).
March 14/08: The AIRSS/3GIRS team wins US Air Force Space Command’s Agile Acquisition Transformation Leadership Award for 2007. The AIRSS/3GIRS team executed a 180-day study with comprehensive collaboration across 11 government organizations and 9 industry partners, that established requirements for the SBIRS follow-on next generation system, developed conceptual space and ground designs, and provided a roadmap for system architecture.
The team also implemented an innovative acquisition strategy for risk reduction and focused on key technology maturation efforts to shorten the development time. The Integrated Test Bed (ITB) program was implemented to help stimulate industry Internal Research and Development (IRAD) activities, by identifying key enabling technologies which increase performance of the system.
March 3/08: The USAF Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, CA announces the early completion of 2 advanced missile warning sensor prototypes delivered as part of AIRSS/3GIRS Risk Reduction program. The 2 sensors, developed by SAIC and by Raytheon Company, were delivered less than 18 months from contract start.
Whereas previous DSP satellite sensors relied on complex scanning mechanisms to deliver full-earth surveillance, Raytheon’s release touts an 18-month sprint to “the integration and demonstration of a novel sensor able to monitor the entire earth,” and claims that initial test pattern images show that their sensor will outperform both DSP and previous Space-Based InfraRed System designs, offering “telescope image quality and focal plane functionality.”
RR-AIRSS is sponsored by SMC, and managed by the Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate in Albuquerque, NM. After environmental testing, the sensors will go to the Air Force Research Laboratory for further evaluation.
August 2007: The program is renamed the Third Generation Infrared Surveillance (3GIRS), after the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technologies and Logistics (AT&L) replans AIRSS, from acting as insurance against further difficulties with the SBIRS-High GEO satellites, to becoming a low risk and affordable follow-on to SBIRS.
June 4/07: Northrop Grumman Space and Mission Systems in Redondo Beach, CA received an $8 million firm-fixed-price and cost-plus-fixed-fee contract modification under the AIRSS program. NGC’s April 12 release adds that the option is designed to move the program to a System Design Review (SDR) level of maturity, following a successful System Requirements Review.
They will perform system definition, allocate technical requirements document requirements to the various subsystems, and assess whether the requirements allocation is supportable with components available by Key Decision Point B in December 2007. At this time, $2 million have been obligated, and work will be complete May 2008 (FA8814-07-0002/modification # 00001).
June 4/07: General Dynamics C4 Systems in Gilbert, AZ received a $6.4 million firm-fixed-price and cost-plus-fixed-fee contract modification under the AIRSS effort.
They will perform system definition, allocate technical requirements document requirements to the various subsystems, and assess whether the requirements allocation is supportable with components available by Key Decision Point B in December 2007. At this time, $2.3 million have been obligated, and work will be complete May 2008 (FA8814-07-C-0001/modification #00001).
April 12/07: Northrop Grumman Corporation announces a contract worth up to $21.9 million for the Alternative Infrared Satellite System (AIRSS) Program Research and Development Announcement (PRDA) effort. Under the terms of the contract, Northrop Grumman’s Electronic Systems sector will provide planning for mission integration and software development approaches for the ground-based processing segment of an AIRSS flight demonstration system.
The initial contract comes with two options. If the options are exercised, Northrop Grumman would also provide system design and systems software architecture definition for the ground segment of an AIRSS objective system, and initial flight processing solution refinement for the AIRSS demonstration system. The Headquarters Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, CA issued the contract.
Dec 4/06: General Dynamics C4 Systems in Gilbert, AZ ($23.4 million, FA8814-07-C-0001), and Northrop Grumman Space Technology in Redondo Beach, CA ($24.8 million, FA8814-07-C-0002) received firm-fixed-price and cost-plus-fixed fee contracts for AIRSS research and development. Their role is to perform system definition, allocated technical requirements document requirements to the various subsystems, and assess whether the requirements allocation is supportable with components available by Key Decision Point B in May 2008. General Dynamics will also evaluate space and ground system integration approaches for geosynchronous and highly elliptical orbit applications.
At this time, $13.8 million (General Dynamics), and $6 million (Northrop Grumman) have been obligated. This work will be complete by May 2008. The Headquarters Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, CA issued the contracts.
September 2006: The Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base, NM has issued contracts to investigate and demonstrate, via hardware test and evaluation, the viability of a “full-earth sharing sensor assembly” [staring sensor assembly?] to meet the threshold missile warning and defense objectives of the Defense Satellite Program/ Space Based Infrared Surveillance (DSP/SBIRS) High Systems. It will also provide performance data that can be used by the government to assess the risk of this approach for future alternative infrared satellite system engineering and manufacturing design programs.
Sept 19/06: Science Applications International Corp., (SAIC) in San Diego, CA receives a $23.2 million cost-plus-award fee contract (FA9453-06-C-0378) related to the full-earth sharing sensor assembly effort.
Sept 6/06: Raytheon Co. in El Segundo, CA receives a $54.4 million contract (FA9435-060C-0377) related to the full-earth sharing sensor assembly effort.
As the DefenseLINK releases note, the contractors shall build, integrate, and test enough of the hardware and software elements of the functional/ signal path to demonstrate basic integrated sensor assembly capability against requirements goals derived from the DSP/ SBIRS High requirements. Solicitations began May 2006, negotiations were complete September 2006, and work will be complete 28 months for technical completion plus 3 months for receipt of final report (contract completion).
* Raytheon – Third Generation Infrared System (3GIRS)
* GAO (Sept 12/07, #GAO-07-1088R) – Space Based Infrared System High Program and its Alternative. Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.
* US House Appropriations Committee, National Security Subcommittee (March 23/95) – Space Forces Essential to Modern Military: Prepared statement of Paul G. Kaminski, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology. Reading the section on SBIRS, one can see where the program began to go off the rails.