SBIRS Dilemma: Go High or Go Home
The nation’s missile warning system is nearing the end of its lifespan, leaving little alternative than to proceed with its replacement Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High, according to retired Air Force Undersecretary Peter B. Teets.
Originally bid at $4 billion, Congress was recently notified per regulations that the cost for SBIRS High satellites number 3-5 would be 15% or more than the original $1.5 billion estimate, as a result of a technology upgrade to the three satellites’ computer system architecture. This marks the third cost overrun for the program since 2002. Teets said the total program will likely cost $11 billion to $12 billion, an increase over even the June 2004 projection of about $10 billion.
Created in the 1990s, SBIRS High was designed to replace the Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites, which has been monitoring the skies since the system’s first launch in 1970. Improvements to DSP have allowed those satellites to exceed their design lifespan, but matters are likely to become critical around 2010-2012. “I am doubtful that there will be an alternative that can meet the DSP time frame required for replacement,” Teets said. “So you kind of get yourself in that jam, and we are in that jam… We are talking about the early warning system for the country.”
The best estimate for the program’s completion date is fiscal 2014. Additional DSP launches are scheduled that should prevent any lapses in coverage, though testimony before Congress has noted that there are some classes of missiles that DSP finds it difficult to see.