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Missile Warning Satellites: Comprehensive Cost and Schedule Information Would Enhance Congressional Oversight

GAO-21-105249 Published: Sep 22, 2021. Publicly Released: Sep 22, 2021.
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Fast Facts

The U.S. Space Force is replacing a network of infrared, satellite-based sensors—that provide worldwide initial warning of ballistic missile attacks on the United States—with the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared system (Next Gen OPIR).

The initial launch of a Next Gen OPIR satellite, planned for 2025, is likely to be delayed. Program officials are aware of schedule risks, but continue to report an on-track timeline and stable cost estimates in reports to Congress.

We made 2 recommendations, including that the Space Force provide Congress more transparent cost and schedule risk information for Next Gen OPIR.

Launch of a Space-Based Infrared System Satellite

arc of light across a dark sky

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What GAO Found

The U.S. defense and intelligence communities depend on data from overhead persistent infrared sensors. These sensors provide early warning of ballistic missile launches and contribute to other defense and intelligence missions. The planned Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next Gen OPIR) system is intended to replace the Space Based Infrared System, which began in the mid-1990s. The Space Force plans to launch the first of five Next Gen OPIR satellites in 2025. The figure below presents a notional depiction of current and planned OPIR systems.

Notional Depiction of Current and Planned OPIR Satellite Orbits

Notional Depiction of Current and Planned OPIR Satellite Orbits

Despite early steps to speed up development, the Next Gen OPIR program faces significant technical and managerial challenges—such as developing a new mission payload and serving as the lead system integrator for the first time in this area—that are likely to delay the initial launch. Significant schedule delays typically result in cost increases. Although officials are aware of schedule risks, they continue to present an on-track timeline and stable cost estimates in reports to congressional committees. More transparency in schedules and costs would contribute to better Department of Defense (DOD) and congressional oversight and decision-making.

The first Next Gen OPIR satellites are intended to provide missile warning capabilities and support other mission partners. DOD has initiated multi-agency efforts to determine how to meet future needs. However, coordination mechanisms are not formalized. Without documenting roles, responsibilities, and plans, DOD risks ineffective collaboration and unsynchronized delivery of warfighter capabilities.

Why GAO Did This Study

The U.S. Space Force plans to spend around $14.4 billion over the next 5 years to develop the Next Gen OPIR system, comprised of satellites and a ground system to detect and track missiles, among other things. The Air Force experienced significant problems when it developed the predecessor to Next Gen OPIR—it was roughly 9 years late and cost more than three times its initial estimate.

A report to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 contained a provision for GAO to review Next Gen OPIR efforts. This report (1) identifies the challenges Next Gen OPIR acquisition efforts face and the extent to which the Space Force is addressing them, and (2) assesses the extent to which Next Gen OPIR capabilities will address missions supported by the current system. GAO reviewed program documentation, acquisition strategies, and Air Force and DOD acquisition guidance, and interviewed DOD officials. GAO assessed this information against acquisition and collaboration best practices. Information that DOD deemed to be sensitive has been omitted.


GAO recommends that the Space Force provide congressional committees more transparent cost and schedule risk information for Next Gen OPIR, and that DOD formalize coordination across agencies. DOD partially concurred with both recommendations. Regarding the first, GAO believes DOD's plan will meet the intent of the recommendation; on the second, GAO maintains the importance of formalizing coordination.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should direct the Space Force to work with congressional defense committees to provide transparent status information that identifies risks to meeting cost and schedule goals and any actions the Space Force plans to address these risks. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
DOD partially agreed with this recommendation, stating that its quarterly updates to congressional committees already provide cost and schedule assessment information that incorporates program risks. However, DOD stated its intent to provide further detail on cost and schedule risks through its quarterly briefings and to recommend that the Space Force deliver the additional information by no later than the third quarterly status update for fiscal year 2021. In July 2021, the Space Force began including in its quarterly status reports more detailed information to congress and decision makers on risks and risk mitigation efforts. We assess that the additional information provided to congressional committees in these quarterly reports meets the intent of our recommendation.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should formalize a plan to coordinate efforts across multiple agencies, either through the current OPIR Enterprise Architecture Summit or through a similar mechanism, to ensure OPIR capabilities meet warfighter needs, including, for example, developing terms of reference or memoranda of understanding, or establishing a charter to help guide efforts to plan the future OPIR architecture. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
DOD partially agreed with this recommendation, stating that it disagreed with our underlying finding that it lacks an overarching plan to acquire future OPIR systems, but recognized the importance of synchronizing efforts to satisfy future missile warning requirements and acknowledged that many managerial mechanisms had not been established and documented to coordinate across agencies. In August 2021, a multi-agency team completed an Analysis of Alternatives Update study related to OPIR systems. According to DOD, the AoA assessed the performance, resilience, and cost of families of overhead systems and resulted in a proposed Government Reference Architecture that leverages ongoing efforts from across the enterprise community. In early 2022, the Space Acquisition Council convened to review the USSF Chief Strategy and Resourcing Officer's Missile Warning, Tracking, and Defense requirements allocation and associated recommendations for the Missile Warning, Tracking, and Defense Integration Plan proposed by SSC, SDA, and MDA. According to DOD, the integration plan includes a governance concept with a combined program office (CPO) that will coordinate capability development across the mission areas. The CPO Memo of Agreement (MOA) is finalized and signed. We have reviewed the MOA and interviewed officials from each of the three members of the CPO. It is our assessment that the execution of the MOA meets the intent of our recommendation.

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Ballistic missile defenseCritical technologiesDefense acquisition programsMilitary forcesMilitary readinessSatellitesSpace systemsSpace vehiclesSystems acquisitionCost and schedule