Space Based Infrared System High Program and its Alternative

GAO-07-1088R: Published: Sep 12, 2007. Publicly Released: Sep 12, 2007.

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The U.S. relies on infrared satellites to provide early warning of enemy missile launches and protect the nation, its military forces, and allies. In 1996, the Department of Defense (DOD) initiated the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) program to replace the nation's current missile detection system and provide expanded capabilities to support intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. DOD expected to field SBIRS by 2004 at a cost of about $4.2 billion. However, over the past 11 years, SBIRS has proven to be technically challenging and substantially more costly. In an effort to stem cost increases and schedule delays, DOD has restructured the program multiple times, including revising program goals. SBIRS is now estimated to cost over $10.4 billion, and the first satellite launch is expected in 2008. Because of continuing problems with SBIRS, DOD began a parallel alternative effort in 2006 known as the Alternative Infrared Satellite System (AIRSS), to compete with SBIRS and ensure that the nation's missile-warning and defense capabilities are sustained, or possibly provide a follow-on capability to SBIRS. Congress requested that GAO assess both SBIRS and AIRSS. As agreed with your office, with respect to SBIRS, we focused on the extent to which DOD is prepared to deliver the first two SBIRS satellites within revised cost, schedule, and performance goals. With respect to AIRSS, we examined the adequacy of DOD's decision to proceed with AIRSS as an alternative to SBIRS as well as whether DOD is attaining the knowledge it needs to position the program for success.

Over 12 months after its restructuring, SBIRS still faces challenges in meeting cost, schedule, and performance goals--particularly relating to the development of spacecraft and ground system software. At the time of our review, for example, spacecraft software development efforts were behind schedule by as much as 32 percent. Moreover, management reserves--designed to cover unanticipated work--were being depleted at a much higher rate than anticipated. In addition, DOD has not adequately justified its decision to proceed with AIRSS, and there is disagreement within the department on the purpose and scope of the program. DOD has also not adequately positioned the program for success. For example, a demonstration satellite is not being planned in a way that would maximize DOD's ability to incorporate knowledge gained into the AIRSS program. Based on these findings, we recommend that DOD reexamine the AIRSS program. DOD concurred with our findings and recommendation.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD has reassessed its investment in Alternative Infrared Satellite System and ways of reducing risk posed by the Space Based Infrared System High program. Specifically, DOD has moved away from developing the Alternative Infrared Satellite System as an alternative for the Space Based Infrared System High program and has redirected its resources to pursue risk reduction, system definition, and ground tests in an effort now called the Third Generation Infrared Surveillance. DOD expects this approach will create greater assurance for appropriately balancing developmental risks, operational needs, and budget constraints as it moves forward to integrating new technologies into the next space-based infrared system. In fiscal year 2009, DOD will continue sensor testing and technology maturation activities with the development of an integrated test bed that will include payloads built from the risk reduction sensors matured under the Alternative Infrared Satellite System. Technology maturation activities also include an option for rideshare on a commercial communications satellite to conduct space-based testing.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics to reassess its investment in AIRSS and alternative ways of reducing the risk posed by the SBIRS program, to more confidentially assure that current missile-warning and defense capabilities are sustained.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


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