Final SBIRS Missile Warning Satellite Finally in Orbit

Final SBIRS Missile Warning Satellite Finally in Orbit

The sixth and final Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous satellite, SBIRS GEO-6, is in orbit today, 11 years after the first was launched. Coupled with SBIRS satellites in other orbits, the system allows the United States to detect and track missile launches and other thermal events anywhere in the world, a critical capability. The Space Force is already working on its successor, Next Generation Overhead Persistent InfraRed or Next-Gen OPIR, hopefully avoiding the cost overruns and schedule delays that plagued SBIRS over the past 26 years since its inception.

SBIRS GEO-6 was launched by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 6:29 am EDT this morning from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, FL. Atlas V rockets have launched all the satellites in this series.

SBIRS GEO-6 lifts off on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, August 4, 2022. Photo credit: ULA

The Lockheed Martin spacecraft carries scanning and staring infrared sensors built by Northrop Grumman. The total constellation consists of the six satellites in geosynchonrous orbit plus sensors on two satellites in highly elliptical orbits.

SBIRS is the successor to the Defense Support Program (DSP) early warning satellites, some of which are still functioning. The satellites provide missile warning, missile defense, tactical intelligence, and battlespace awareness according to Space Systems Command’s Col. Daniel Walter who briefed the media on Monday. Last year 42,000 thermal events were detected, he said, and that includes reentering space objects and wildfires.

Col. Brian Denaro, U.S. Space Force’s Program Executive Officer for Space Sensing, said SBIRS GEO-6 “provides another unblinking eye to detect, track and defend against ballistic and hypersonic missile threats, improving data gathering and battlespace awareness capabilities.”

While there is no question that missile warning satellites are critical to the nation, the SBIRS program was far from a model of successful acquisition. A 2021 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the new system under development, Next-Gen OPIR, noted that SBIRS experienced four Nunn-McCurdy breaches when cost overruns exceed a threshold set in law that require congressional notification and other actions.

“The Air Force mismanaged the early stages of the SBIRS acquisition by moving forward with immature technologies, unclear requirements, unstable funding, underestimated software complexity, and ineffective government oversight. Total program costs for SBIRS grew approximately 260 percent from $5.6 billion in 1996—when the Air Force initiated the program—to $20.3 billion in 2020, and launch of the first satellite was delayed roughly 9 years, from 2002 to 2011. Even after restructuring the program several times, SBIRS continued to face development challenges, including test failures and technical issues that resulted in cost growth and schedule delays on the third and fourth satellites. Additionally, the fifth and sixth SBIRS GEO satellites experienced technical issues leading to delays.” — GAO

The associated ground system “proved much more difficult than originally anticipated.” It was not until August 2019, eight years after the first satellite was launched, that the “ground processing capabilities needed to take full advantage of the satellites’ infrared sensors” were ready.  GAO offered recommendations on how to improve acquisition for Next-Gen OPIR: that the Space Force provide more transparent cost and schedule risk information to Congress, and that DOD formalize coordination across agencies.

Like SBIRS, Next-Gen OPIR will have satellites in different orbits — three in geosynchronous orbit and two in highly elliptical/polar orbits. The first GEO satellite is planned for launch in 2025 and the first polar satellite in 2028.

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