Nine years late, the Air Force is finally ready to launch a new missile-spotting satellite that it says will usher in "a new era in persistent infrared surveillance."
Barring further delays, the first of four Space-Based Infrared System satellites will blast off May 6 and climb to an altitude of about 22,200 miles, where it will park in a geosynchronous orbit and stare at Earth, watching for missile launches and searching for new military targets.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Roger Teague, chief of the Air Force Infrared Space Systems Directorate, emphasized the new satellite's expected capability during a telephone press conference Tuesday.
Infrared sensors on the spacecraft are "so much more sensitive" than those in use on current missile-detecting satellites, he said. "They can see much more much earlier" and they "can see much dimmer targets."
Teague said he could not elaborate on what more the sensors can see or what dimmer targets might be without disclosing classified information. Dimmer targets are expected to include smaller, shorter-range missiles.
While extolling the new satellite, Teague also acknowledged that the SBIRS program "has faced and overcome a number of challenges in the past."
Those include major delays and exorbitant costs. Begun in 1995, SBIRS was supposed to be a $4.5 billion program that put new missile launch detecting satellites in orbit starting in 2002. Nearly a decade behind schedule, the program has consumed $15.9 billion, and according to the Government Accountability Office, costs are still going up.
Teague said the last of four geosynchronous satellites now planned won't be launched until 2016 if the current schedule holds.
The SBIRS satellite constellation also includes four sensor payloads that are hosted on non-Air Force satellites in highly elliptical orbits, he said. Two of those already have been launched.
As they are launched one by one, the SBIRS satellites will begin augmenting the existing Defense Support Program system of early warning satellites that watch for hostile missile launches, Teague said. They will become "the gold standard for missile warning," he said.
In addition to missile launch warnings, the new satellites are intended to contribute to missile defense, to battle space awareness and to gather "technical intelligence," the Air Force says.
Their contribution to missile defense is to gather intelligence and send it to the ground to be processed and distributed fast enough to provide theater commanders with actionable intelligence for planning defenses, Teague said.
Gathering technical intelligence involves spotting new targets on the ground and gathering data "to figure out the profiles of the new targets," said Jeff Smith, a Lockheed Martin vice president for SBIRS.
Smith, too, noted the "many challenges" that SBIRS has faced, but said Lockheed is confident that the satellites "will meet or exceed customer expectations" to deliver "unprecedented global persistent and taskable infrared surveillance."
But even now, costs continue to escalate and there is danger of further delays, GAO told Congress in March. The Defense Contract Management Agency "projects nearly $600 million in cost overruns at contract completion, more than twice the amount reported last year," GAO reported.
The SBIRS program office "is working to rebaseline" SBIRS cost and schedule estimates "for the sixth time," GAO said, referring to the process of re-estimating costs and schedules after they have been exceeded.
Recent delays were caused by faulty flight software designed to monitor the health of the satellite, GAO said.