Skip to Highlights

The Pentagon considers defenses to counter attacks from ballistic missiles, both long-range strategic and shorter-range theater missiles, to be critical to U.S. national security. The Air Force is developing a new satellite system, called Space-Based Infrared System-low (SBIRS-low) to expand the military's infrared satellite capabilities for supporting ballistic missile defenses. GAO reviewed the Defense Department's (DOD) efforts to acquire SBIRS-low. Specifically, GAO (1) evaluated the cost, schedule, and performance risks of the current acquisition schedule; (2) evaluated the program's technical risks; and (3) determined whether DOD has assessed alternative approaches to SBIRS-low. GAO found that the Air Force's current SBIRS-low acquisition schedule is of high risk of not delivering the system on time or at cost or with expected performance. SBIRS-low has high technical risks because some critical satellite technologies have been judged immature for the current stage of the program. DOD acquisition policy and procedures require that the cost and mission effectiveness of space systems be assessed relative to alternative terrestrial systems. However, the Air Force has not analyzed or identified terrestrial alternatives to the SBIRS-low system because, according to Air Force Space Command officials, terrestrial alternatives do not exist. Nevertheless, studies on various aspects of the National Missile Defense system by the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and other groups have pointed out alternatives to SBIRS-low, such as sea- or land-based radar.

Skip to Recommendations


Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense 1. In order to reduce the cost, schedule, performance, and technical risks in the SBIRS-low program, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force, with the approval of the Director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, to develop a schedule that reduces concurrency and risks, and that sets more realistic and achievable cost, schedule, and performance goals.
Closed - Not Implemented
Initially, DOD partially concurred with GAO's recommendation, stating that an alternative acquisition strategy must balance program risk with the National Missile Defense need date for countering more sophisticated missiles. Subsequent to GAO's report, the SBIRS-Low program was moved off the acquisition track and redesignated a research and development program to be managed by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). Given the new focus, the MDA also renamed SBIRS-Low the Space Tracking and Surveillance System. Because the program is no longer an acquisition program and MDA has developed a completely new procurement strategy for the program, GAO determined that this recommendation has been overcome by events.
Department of Defense 2. The Secretary of Defense should assess the impact of the revised SBIRS-low procurement schedule on the National Missile Defense program and provide the results of the assessment to Congress.
Closed - Not Implemented
Given the change in moving SBIRS-Low and the National Missile Defense Program from the acquisition to the R&D track, GAO believes that this recommendation, as stated, is no longer applicable.
Department of Defense 3. The Secretary of Defense should direct the Director, Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, to analyze and develop, as appropriate, and in compliance with DOD acquisition policy and procedures, alternative approaches to satisfy critical missile defense midcourse tracking and discrimination requirements in case SBIRS-low cannot be deployed when needed.
Closed - Implemented
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. DOD initiated a study to address viable alternatives for SBIRS-Low capabilities, and were tasked to provide this report by March 2001. A draft of this report was delivered to the appropriate committees, but this report has not yet been finalized, and because the Under Secretary of Defense believes it to be based on some wrong assumptions and scenarios, it will not be released. Subsequently, the Senate Armed Services Committee report, S. 1438; Senate Report 107-62, directed that a study addressing SBIRS-Low alternatives be submitted to congressional defense committees. In December 2003, GAO received a copy of the STSS Alternatives Report (classified SECRET). The report identified the extent that each alternative would meet key performance requirements as well as the cost of each alternative. However, the report did not include quantitative assessments regarding each systems' contribution toward key capabilities, with technical risks and cost also being considered. Also, the study did not quantitatively assess the DOD's infrared capabilities with and without STSS, to determine the value that STSS adds (along with cost and risk to DOD).

Full Report