C4ISR

Air Force’s infrared satellite system gets to the next step

AF Lockheed SBRIS satellite

Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have delivered the payload for the fourth geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) satellite in the Air Force’s Space Based Infrared System, an integrated system for early ballistic missile warning and infrared surveillance.

When integrated into a geosynchronous spacecraft and launched in 2016, the satellite, known as GEO-4, will complete the geosynchronous portion of SBIRS, the Air Force said in a release. The fifth and sixth satellites, for which the Air Force awarded Lockheed a $1.86 billion contract in June, will take over for the first two satellites as they reach the end of their lifecycles, the Air Force said. The system also includes two hosted payloads in highly elliptical orbit (HEO), along with hardware and software on the ground.

The SBIRS program is replacing the venerable Defense Support Program (DSP) system, which launched 23 satellites for missile defense between 1960 and 2007. SBIRS satellites’ infrared sensors will provide better coverage while being three times more sensitive than DSP.

Information from SBRIS is supplied to the president, secretary of Defense, combatant commanders, the intelligence community and other decision makers, the two companies said in a release. Lockheed is the prime contractor and Northrop Grumman the payload provider.

The GEO satellites in the system each have a scanning sensor for providing surveillance of missile launches and natural phenomena around the globe and a staring sensor that can focus more narrowly on areas of interest, the companies said. The infrared sensors on the HEO satellites are designed to detect submarine-launched ballistic missiles from the Arctic, though they also can be directed to perform other missions, according to the Air Force.

The GEO-4 payload is the third SBIRS payload delivered in the past 15 months, a sign of progress for a program that had been plagued by cost overruns and technical challenges. The launch of the first satellite was scheduled for 2002, but was delayed by technical problems until 2011. The second satellite went up in 2013. GEO-3 recently completed acoustic testing and is going through thermal vacuum testing, the companies said.

“This payload delivery … further demonstrates that SBIRS is in the regular cadence of full production,” said Louie Lombardo, director of Lockheed Martin’s SBIRS Follow-on Production (SFP) program. Maj. Jon Seal, the Air Force’s GEO-4 vehicle manager, agreed, calling the payload delivery “a major accomplishment in the life of the program.”

But although the program is keeping up with its current schedule, those earlier delays have proved costly. A Government Accountability Office report last year said the program’s budget had quadrupled since its inception, going from $4.7 billion to $18.9 billion.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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