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This article was Originally Published on Oct 01, 2002 in Volume: 1  Issue: 5

SBIRS Low Program to Move Into New Launch Orbit

With prospects recently "on the bubble," SBIRS Low bounces back as a "capabilities-based" acquisition program.

By Patrick P. Caruana

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The U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) layered approach to stopping enemy missile attacks on America, its allies, and troops in the field is primarily dependent on the military’s ability to detect, track, discern, and report ballistic missiles in their boost, midcourse and reentry phases of their flight.

A tricky problem made even more difficult by the use of missile-launched  midcourse decoys, this vital surveillance requirement has recently been laid at the feet of a multicompany design and development effort (see MAT, Vol. Issue 1) called the Space-Based Infrared System-Low (SBIRS Low).

As envisioned by team members TRW—which heads the group—Spectrum Astro, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, SBIRS Low is a globe-girdling, low-earth orbit (110-300 miles high) “constellation” of satellites (24-30) capable of profiling and tracking ballistic missiles throughout their course.  Because of this planned three-phase capability, SBIRS Low, unlike ground- and sea-based elements of the nation’s emerging Ballistic Missile Defense System (BDMS), will be able to fully track missile launches throughout their most vulnerable midcourse state. And, in contrast to these “corridor-of-attack”-dependent ground- and sea-based systems, SBIRS Low is designed to operate worldwide on a 24/7 basis. A follow-on, companion program—SBIRS High—will be configured to detect ballistic missile launches in their launch phase.

Equipped with infrared sensors, SBIRS Low satellites are designed to provide missile warning, booster track and typing, post-boost vehicle tracking, midcourse re-entry vehicle and penetration-aid tracking, target discrimination and missile-kill assessment. With a pedigree that goes back to the original Strategic Defense Initiative, the SBIRS Low program was experiencing funding uncertainties as recently as March, but in April MDA announced a restructuring of the program that made TRW the industry team-leader. And in August MDA redefined the contract as a “capabilities-based” acquisition program that would exploit hardware developed in an earlier Flight Development System (FDS) phase of the program.

In essence a systems management term for good old American ingenuity and improvisation, capabilities management—and its cognate, “spiral development”—has been characterized by Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition Pete Aldridge as  “… similar to pre-planned product improvement, but…focused on providing the warfighter with an initial capability which may be less than the full requirement, as a trade-off for earlier delivery, agility, affordability, and risk reduction.”


In its latest iteration the revamped space-based sensor program embodies two key priorities of MDA’s capabilities-based acquisition approach:

  • Leverage of existing capabilities for “proof of principle.” Using two largely completed FDS satellite buses—developed by TRW—and Raytheon-developed FDS infrared sensor payloads, the restructured program builds on existing capabilities to lower the technical risk and enable an early deployment of a space-based missile tracking system.
  • Integration of SBIRS Low into the Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) test bed (the test infrastructure of the overall system). The test bed is designed to allow the assessment of assorted ballistic missile defense system elements alone and in concert with other assets as part of the layered missile defense architecture.

In accordance, then, with the capabilities-based concept, performance of the restructured SBIRS Low in these two areas should lead to recommendations for new technology insertions into future satellites and continued development of capabilities for the entire system.

Referring to this revamped program while echoing Aldridge’s view about capabilities management, General Howell M. Estes III (ret.), former commander in chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the U.S. Space Command, has said, “The restructured SBIRS Low contract provides a smart approach to system development. It effectively balances the need to provide a near-term low cost, low-risk quick proof-of-principle demonstration in support of a layered approach to missile defense.”

Such “proof-of-principle” will take place under the first phase of the restructured program, which began in August and extends to 2008. Here, the launching of SBIRS Low satellites in 2006 and 2007 will demonstrate the system’s satellite-based missile-tracking capabilities. In subsequent cycles, spiral development of evolving technologies will be explored to permit the integration of improvements for increased warfighter capabilities.

Accordingly, the objectives of the revised SBIRS Low program are:

  • Demonstrate the system’s space-based, infrared tracking and discrimination capabilities for the BMDS
  • Provide generic space-based “eyes and ears”—infrared sensing and communications links—to support various BMDS test activities
  • Develop a systems architecture that provides a low-risk path for evolving space-based infrared sensing hardware/software capabilities based on evolving threats and fosters integrating those capabilities into the BMDS. The SBIRS Low ground segment will likewise undergo a capabilities-based evolution.

Fused Talent, MIRV’d Responsibilities

The MDA’s restructuring of the SBIRS Low program brought to a close the previous Program Definition and Risk Reduction phase and ushered in the program’s research and development phase. Under it, previously competing corporate teams have been integrated to focus trans-company talent on the problem of solving the technical challenges to satellite-based missile tracking. 

TRW, as prime, has responsibility and accountability for system design, mission performance, contractor team performance, and integration with the BMDS test bed—and, initially will work closely with the U.S. Air Force’s system program office. Later, it will work increasingly with MDA’s national teams and the space sensor technical community to ensure that SBIRS Low capitalizes on advances in missile defense technology and is responsive to evolving threats. Spectrum Astro, for its part, will play a key role in spacecraft development; and Raytheon and Northrop Grumman will develop sensor payloads under competitive subcontracts. Accordingly, the restructured contract avoids cost duplication in the areas of program management, systems engineering and ground station development while maintaining a continuing competition for the highest risk areas.

MDA, however, retains Total System Performance Responsibility (TSPR) and participates shoulder-to-shoulder in reviewing key contractor decisions. It has responsibility and accountability for the overall program direction and success, and will evaluate combinations of complementary sensor and weapons alternatives to assess the overall benefit to an integrated, layered BMDS. The MDA also monitors cost, schedule and contractor performance; assesses risk of each of the major program elements; and evaluates items such as technology-maturing and basing modes.

Significantly, the SBIRS Low program cycles will evolve in alignment with those of the overall BMDS Test Bed.

“The capability of the satellites and ground system will increase with each cycle as technology matures, as BMDS technical objectives and goals evolve, and as we gain experience from ongoing satellite design, manufacture, and test,” explained Paul Borzcik, TRW vice president and manager of the SBIRS Low Program. “In this way, SBIRS Low’s integrated system capabilities will grow in parallel with those of an evolving, integrated BMDS.“

Ignition, Liftoff

Initially, SBIRS Low research and development will focus on three areas: core engineering and management, including the preparation of design reviews for Cycle 1 satellites; Cycle 1 activities, such as exercising hardware from the FDS phase and the development of a satellite ground operations center; and spiral development-intensive Cycle 2 activities. Major tasks to be completed include development of the integrated space and ground segment architecture; Cycle 1 assembly, integration, launch and test of a two-satellite constellation in the 2006/2007 timeframe; and development of Cycle 2-and-beyond space, ground and communications capabilities in support of future BMDS blocks.

“Our focus at this stage is on acquiring and evolving what’s achievable with managed risk,” Borzcik said. “Part of that risk-mitigation involves the use of already demonstrated capabilities and technologies. The FDS satellite bus and the Raytheon-built IR [infrared] sensor payloads have both undergone extensive testing. Flights number 1 and number 2 will enable us to demonstrate sensor performance in orbit and the ‘hand-off’ of missile tracking from one SBIRS Low satellite to another.”

Leveraging this vision, SBIRS Low is designed to develop successive space vehicles with diverse payloads that integrate into a single protective constellation. The program’s immediate task, however, is to place an initial capability in orbit and to integrate space-based missile tracking into the BMDS architecture.

In the final analysis, however, the program is also designed to demonstrate how—with hardware developed during the program’s FDS phase—capabilities-based development can unfold in a critical U.S. missile-defense program.

Mr. Caruana is Vice President, Missile Defense for TRW

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