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USAF Seeks SBIRS Alternatives

The USAF was expected to make a decision in 2008 about whether to proceed with SBIRS or with Raytheon's proposed AISS program.
by Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst
Washington (UPI) Oct 26, 2006
It looks like curtains for SBIRS. The U.S. Air Force is looking for space-systems to detect missile launches. The U.S. Air Force has awarded contracts to Raytheon and to the Science Applications International Corporation to develop new infrared satellite detection systems that could carry out the mission SBIRS, the Space Based Infrared System, was supposed to.

SAIC announced Tuesday that it had won a new $25 million contract from the U.S. Air Force to develop a new infrared satellite system for the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and Space Vehicles Directorate for its Risk Reduction, or AIRSS, program.

"Under this contract, SAIC will supply a qualification model payload to AFRL/VS for their Risk Reduction-AIRSS program including system engineering; optics and electronics hardware design and development; software design and development; engineering integration; and environmental, performance and acceptance testing," the company said.

"Work will be performed primarily in San Diego and Seal Beach, Calif., and Albuquerque, N.M."

SAIC said its engineers would "design, build, integrate and test an innovative infrared (IR) sensor assembly for space applications, and integrate the latest IR focal plane arrays, and readout electronics. They also will process data relevant to the Air Force's missile warning and missile defense missions."

"SAIC has a 30-year heritage in space hardware development, designing and fielding successful, on-orbit electro-optical, infrared space payloads using commercial-off-the-shelf and state-of-the-art components," said Charles Gilman, SAIC vice president and operations manager in the Research, Development, Test and Evaluation Group. "Through this contract, we can help our customer respond to critical, real-world missions."

Earlier this month, Defense Industry Daily reported that the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., has awarded a contract to the Raytheon company to explore the possibility of developing what it calls "a full-earth sharing sensor assembly."

The Air Force Research Laboratory "has issued contracts to investigate and demonstrate, via hardware test and evaluation, the viability of a full-earth sharing sensor assembly to meet the threshold missile warning and defense objectives of the Defense Satellite Program/ Space Based Infrared Surveillance (DSP/SBIRS) High Systems. It will also provide performance data that can be used by the government to assess the risk of this approach for future alternative infrared satellite system engineering and manufacturing design programs."

In an Oct. 16 press statement Raytheon said: "The Alternate Infrared Satellite System program, as it is known, calls for Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems to design and build a developmental integrated sensor assembly for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.

"The Air Force is seeking to develop a solution with lower cost and risk than the geosynchronous missile warning satellite in parallel development by another contractor for the third Space Based Infrared System," Raytheon said.

"The program takes advantage of a single full-earth staring instrument to look for infrared plumes and provide early warning of ballistic missile launches," said Brian Arnold, vice president for Strategic Systems. "The lack of moving parts allows for a lighter, more affordable payload and fewer opportunities for component failure, while the non-moving, wide-angle infrared optics capture the earth's surface at high fidelity."

The large focal plane array "also will allow the warfighter to detect infrared events of brief duration, such as the activity of short-range theater missiles," Raytheon said.

Raytheon said the USAF was expected to make a decision in 2008 about whether to proceed with SBIRS or with Raytheon's proposed AISS program.

"Expected in 2008, a decision to produce either system will depend on the developmental success of the geosynchronous satellites and the maturity of the technology demonstrated by the Alternative Infrared Satellite System, according to the Air Force," the company said.

Significantly, Raytheon described its own program as following "the back-to-basics approach directed by Dr. Ronald Sega, undersecretary of the Air Force."

"Back to basics" has become the motto, or mantra, of U.S. Missile Defense Agency engineers and analysts led by MDA director Lt. Gen., Henry "Trey" Obering as they reallocate their resources to focus on ballistic missile defense programs that are most likely to become operational and effective in the foreseeable future, while pulling the plug on more speculative programs, or those that have not been delivering what they were supposed to.

"The fast-paced program is scheduled to complete critical design review next spring and deliver hardware a year later," Raytheon said.

UPI Watch has monitored the growing problems of the SBIRS program over the past 18 months.

Defense Industry Daily noted on Oct. 17 that the SBIRS program has been characterized by "massive cost overruns, technical challenges that continue to present problems, and uncertain performance." However, DID continued, "their mission -- to detect ballistic missile launches and so serve as the critical first stage of the USA's national early warning system -- is too critical to abandon. What to do?"

Back on Jan. 16, DID noted that "Lockheed Martin has delivered the sensors for the classified satellites, and the payload for the first dedicated satellite is in thermal vacuum testing." However, DID continued, "the Lockheed program has had more than its share of difficulties. Its costs grew from $4 billion to $11-12 billion, and the launch date slipped from 2002 to 2009."

The SAIC and Raytheon contracts suggest the Air Force is serious about looking for alternatives to the long-delayed and costly SBIRS program.

Source: United Press International

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