Report: USAF Early Warning Satellite System Faces Challenges

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

An U.S. Air Force project to launch advanced missile warning satellites faces multiple challenges as it seeks to meet a “highly aggressive and high risk” schedule for a first launch in 2025, according to a new assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared
(Next Gen OPIR) Block 0 consists of three satellites in geosynchronous orbit built by Lockheed Martin and two spacecraft in polar orbit built by Northrop Grumman.

The schedule calls for the first Next Gen OPIR satellite to launch in late 2025. All five satellites would be launched by 2029.

However, there are a number of technical and programmatic challenges ahead.

“Eight of 18 critical technologies are currently immature, with most of those related to the main mission payload. The Air Force has yet to finalize the payload design, which remains one of the highest risks to the launch schedule,” the GAO report said.

“According to program officials, all but two critical technologies will be tested in an operational environment prior to the first satellite launch in 2025,” the document added. “The exceptions, satellite maneuvering thrusters and a sensor protection mechanism, present testing challenges with existing infrastructure. Program officials say these will be ‘sufficiently scrutinized’ to avoid becoming single points of failure after launch.”

The ground systems required to handle the new satellites might not be ready when the first GEO spacecraft is delivered.

“To mitigate this risk in the interim and ensure a ground system is available for the first launch, the program is designing GEO satellites to integrate into existing SBIRS ground architecture with some modifications,” GAO said.

The U.S. Air Force is planning a future Block 1 acquisition that would add two additional satellites to the system.

Credit: GAO

The GAO’s assessment of the program follows.

Defense Acquisitions Annual Assessment

Drive to Deliver Capabilities Faster Increases Importance of Program Knowledge and Consistent Data for Oversight

Government Accountability Office
June 2020

Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared
(Next Gen OPIR) Block 0

The Air Force’s Next Gen OPIR Block 0, a follow-on to the current Space Based Infrared System, consists of three geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) satellites and two polar coverage highly elliptical orbit satellites. The Block 0 rapid prototyping effort will deliver the main mission payload—an infrared sensor—for these satellites.

The Air Force authorized another rapid prototyping effort in December 2019 to develop the future ground system, which is expected to award a contract in July 2020.

Program Background and Expected Results

The Air Force initiated Next Generation OPIR Block 0 as a rapid prototyping middle-tier acquisition in June 2018, with an objective to complete prototyping by October 2023.

Officials report that in August 2018, the Air Force awarded two sole-source contracts for Block 0 satellites–the first to Lockheed Martin Space for three GEO satellites; and the second to Northrop Grumman Corporation Aerospace Systems for two polar satellites.

According to program officials, the Block 0 rapid prototyping effort will end once the main mission payload—an infrared sensor—has completed two steps to demonstrate operational capability: 1) a successful thermal vacuum test, and 2) delivery to the spacecraft for integration. However, the payload will still need to be attached—or integrated—onto the spacecraft.

At the completion of the Block 0 rapid prototyping effort, the Air Force plans to transition to a major capability acquisition pathway for the remaining Block 0 satellites. The Air Force expects its first Next Gen OPIR satellite to achieve initial launch capability by late 2025, and plans to launch all 5 satellites in Block 0 by 2029.

A Block 1 effort is planned to add two additional GEO satellites. Block 1 is anticipated to be a full and open competition, but the Air Force has yet to determine the acquisition pathway for the block.

Next Gen OPIR Block 0 Program

Key Elements of Program Business Case

The Next Gen OPIR Block 0 program had most business case elements approved by program initiation in June 2018. In December 2017, the Joint Requirements Oversight Council validated the program’s requirements, and in June 2018, the Air Force Service Acquisition Executive approved the program’s acquisition strategy.

The acquisition strategy calls for two satellite contractors to develop the GEO and polar satellites, respectively. According to the program, each satellite contractor is to compete the mission payload development and award up to two subcontracts.

Air Force officials say this competition reduces schedule risk by spreading potential development issues across two teams, and provides the highest likelihood of an on-time payload delivery.

The program did not have a cost estimate based on an independent assessment or formal schedule risk assessment at the time of program initiation, but these have since been approved.

In May 2019, nearly a year after program initiation, the Air Force Cost Analysis Agency completed an independent cost assessment of Block 0 GEO and polar satellites that spanned fiscal years 2021 through 2025 and estimated a cost of over $800 million more than the program for the same period.

According to program officials, the cost difference reflects programmatic changes that occurred between program initiation and the independent cost estimate. In June 2019, the program office completed an integrated baseline review, which included a schedule assessment.

The first GEO satellite is required to achieve initial launch capability by late 2025, with all five Block 0 satellites on orbit by 2029. However, our ongoing work assessed the schedule as highly aggressive and high risk, given concurrent development efforts within Block 0, and complex integration that includes first-time integration of a new payload and spacecraft, among other significant technical risks.

Technology

The Secretary of the Air Force’s Office of Science, Technology, and Engineering and the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center Engineering Directorate conducted a formal technical risk assessment of the program in April 2018.

Eight of 18 critical technologies are currently immature, with most of those related to the main mission payload. The Air Force has yet to finalize the payload design, which remains one of the highest risks to the launch schedule.

According to program officials, all but two critical technologies will be tested in an operational environment prior to the first satellite launch in 2025. The exceptions, satellite maneuvering thrusters and a sensor protection mechanism, present testing challenges with existing infrastructure. Program officials say these will be “sufficiently scrutinized” to avoid becoming single points of failure after launch.

Software Development and Cybersecurity

Program officials said they are still forecasting the software effort, but they plan to generally reuse software from the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) GEO programs, ground system, and other programs.

The program has an approved cybersecurity plan which, according to the Air Force, will be assessed and authorized in accordance with DOD’s Risk Management Framework for Information Technology.

Other Program Issues

The program faces multiple challenges. For example, the future ground system may not be ready when the first GEO satellite is delivered. To mitigate this risk in the interim and ensure a ground system is available for the first launch, the program is designing GEO satellites to integrate into existing SBIRS ground architecture with some modifications. This risk mitigation measure is intended provide a continuation of existing missile warning capabilities.

Also, while the program considers the spacecraft a mature legacy technology, the spacecraft will be modified to meet new mission requirements. DOD officials acknowledged the added risk presented by the first-time integration of a new sensor design with a modified spacecraft.

Program Office Comments

We provided a draft of this assessment to the program office for review and comment. The program office provided technical corrections, which we incorporated where appropriate. According to the program office, the shift of the nation’s missile warning architecture to an initial warning constellation resulted in designation of Next Generation OPIR as a MTA rapid prototyping program.

The office further stated that the MTA decision accelerated the planned delivery date of the first vehicle by 42 months to meet the 2025 need date. It said the program is on track, completed systems requirements and preliminary design reviews within 13 months of contract award, and has established a technical design baseline and integration strategies. The program also said it is leveraging existing technology to mitigate multiple risks.