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SBIRS Problems Persist: New Sats Needed

Persistent hardware and software problems that have dogged the Space Based Infrared System for almost two years have not yet been solved, Air Force Space Command Gen. Robert Kehler told reporters at the Air Force Association's annual conference.

Kehler did not speak to the issue of cost. But the general made clear he agrees with the Senate Appropriations Committee that some alternative to SBIRS must be started. "It's time for us to have a follow-on," he said. SBIRS, he said, "has been a very difficult development."

The Senate Appropriations Committee agrees with Kehler that a new generation missile warning capability is needed. The report accompanying the spending bill said the committee "remains concerned over the development challenges that the Space-based Infra-Red System [SBIRS] Geosynchronous Earth Orbit [GEO] satellites continue to encounter." It notes that the program is more than eight years behind schedule and will cost "at least" $7.5 billion more than its original cost estimate. "Due to chronic problems and the importance of missile warning for national security, the Committee supports the Third Generation Infra-Red Surveillance program in order to ensure that development funding is being invested in missile warning capabilities," the report said. The SAC-D added $104 million to the administration's budget request of $39 million.

SBIRS faces a serious software glitch involving its fail-safe mechanisms, or how the satellite decides to go into safe mode in the event of a serious problem. "The progress on that has been good, and the program director is telling me he has a lot of confidence in the software fixes that are currently undergoing testing," Kehler said. The general also said that the satellite faces mechanical problems that persist, including issues with a gyroscope.

The last effort to replace SBIRS, 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. It looks as if that no longer is the case.

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