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  • New $2.4 Billion Missile Defense Satellites Will Be Out Of Date Before They Even Launch

    Two Air Force missile-alert satellites aren’t ready for launch– and by the time they will be, they could be long out of date.

    At this point, according to estimates, upgrading the old satellite platform would cost a minimum of $424 million dollars and delay the program’s launch by around 23 months. As a maximum, the cost would end up being as high as $859 million dollars with a delay of 44 months.

    The Air Force awarded Lockheed a contract worth $2.4 billion dollars to develop two new satellites, which are meant to replace old equipment in orbit by 2020 and 2021. But the satellites in development are of the exact same design specifications as the old ones, aside from a couple of changes to remove obsolete parts. Those specifications are approximately 20 years old.

    A new report from the Government Accountability Office examined the satellites as part of the Space Based Infrared System program (SBIRS), a program that acts as part of the missile alert system. Its satellites are able to detect the launch of ballistic missiles anywhere in the world.

    SBIRS has already been long-plagued by cost overruns and schedule delays. A GAO report from 2014 found that the program had been delayed by nine years and ballooned to $14.1 billion dollars past the initial estimates, according to The Washington Business Journal. Instead of being used to look at how to incorporate upgrades, extra funds had to be allocated to address delays.

    The Air Force conducted an assessment to figure out if new technology used to transmit crucial surveillance data to the missile defense system could be added to the base SBIRS system, which has already been in the works for 18 years. The Air Force, however, decided it would be a good idea to conduct the assessment after it had already approved the acquisition of two additional GEO satellites, making the assessment of little use.

    Air Force officials told GAO that the reason they didn’t start the study earlier is because SBIRS is unable to accommodate new upgrades anyway, owing to other problems plaguing the satellites in development. Some of those issues involve test failures, which caused research and development to be sidelined.

    Currently, the Air Force has no systematic way to deal with technology “insertions,” which is a term to describe replace old with new technology. This means that decisions to make crucial upgrades occur only on an ad hoc basis.

    For now, the Air Force stated that it’s working on a technology road map for the next system, which is designed to look at insertions in a much more systematic way.

    Follow Jonah Bennett on Twitter

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