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Missile Warning Worries Spurs New Program; Congress Skeptical

No one is sure exactly what its name will be -- Intermediate Missile Warning Satellite is one -- but the Pentagon is on the verge of taking that rare act of approving a major new program.

Several versions of an Acquisition Decision Memorandum setting out the details of a new missile warning satellite program have made it to John Young's office of acquisition, technology and logistics but none has been approved, according to a source who is following this effort as closely as possible. I hear that the impetus for this is coming from Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, head of Strategic Command and former commander of Air Force Space Command.

The budget numbers for the new effort would be impressive; to get something built and launched is likely to cost somewhere around $1 billion. Our expert source noted that even if Congress were to approve funding next week putting something into space would probably take four to six years.

The new program would fill a possible gap caused by the failure of some of the DSP satellites or the failure to launch the SBIRS satellites soon enough. The DSP birds are aging and the SBIRS birds suffer from a software problem that has festered for more than a year. Launch of the first SBIRS satellite is now expected to happen in 2009, seven years late and enormously over budget. Current estimates put the cost at $10.4 billion, up from initial estimates of $4.2 billion.

Josh Hartman, Young's chief advisor on space and intelligence capabilities, is known believed to support some sort of gapfiller for the missile warning effort. But the Pentagon has been down this road before only to face rejection at the hands of Congress. The last effort, first begun in 2005, was for something called the Alternative Infrared Satellite System (AIRSS). Congress, willing to consider the need for a replacement satellite, thought the Air Force was taking a road that was far too technologically risky and unlikely to get up soon enough to actually plug the gap that everyone was worried about.

And that skepticism continues, if the comments of one congressional aide are a good indicator. "The Air Force is looking seriously at a gapfiller but I always worry that a gapfiller becomes a Program of record. SBIRS should continue without early termination or it should be extended depending on how you want to use the terminology. At least that is my view. The gapfiller is an issue that will need a lot of discussion," the aide said in a quick email this morning.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report in late September raising questions about the Pentagon's ability to fix the software any time soon. Plus, it won't be cheap with cost estimates ranging from $414 million to $800 million.

"DoD has estimated that the SBIRS program will be delayed by 15 months and cost $414 million in funding to resolve the flight software problems, but these estimates appear optimistic," the GAO said in its usual understated way.

Our source also noted that Congress is unlikely to approve a gapfiller program that relied too heavily on Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for SBIRS. But Lockheed makes the satellite bus -- the chassis on which the sensors are placed -- most likely to be used for a quick effort. The plot on this effort will thicken, especially as the Obama administration transition team does its close look at any new programs.

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