WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force’s next-generation missile warning constellation will likely be delayed, pushing the launch of the first satellite beyond its anticipated 2025 launch date, according to a Sept. 22 Government Accountability Office report.
The Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared constellation is being built to augment and eventually replace the Space Based Infrared System as the Department of Defense’s main missile warning satellite program. Like SBIRS, the Next Gen OPIR, which was initiated in 2018, will use a combination of infrared sensors in geostationary orbit and highly elliptical polar orbits to detect missiles all over the globe. The Space Force plans to spend $14.4 billion on the program through 2025, according to the report.
While the military has prioritized launching the first geostationary satellite in 2025, the GAO finds the program is at high risk of schedule delays.
“Despite early steps to speed up development, the Next Gen OPIR program faces significant technical and managerial challenges — such as developing a new mission payload and serving as the lead system integrator for the first time in this area — that are likely to delay the initial launch,” reads the report, which notes significant delays often lead to cost increases.
The GAO adds that although military officials are aware of those risks, they continue to tell Congress the program is on track with no anticipated cost overruns.
While the Next Gen OPIR report was released publicly on Sept. 22, the GAO completed its assessment months earlier, initially issuing a classified version in March 2021. The unclassified report omits information the Department of Defense determined was too sensitive for the public.
The U.S. military has a history of delays and cost overruns with its major satellite systems. Next Gen OPIR’s predecessor, SBIRS, was delayed nine years and ultimately cost three times as much as initially estimated, the report notes. Upgraded elements of the GPS system have also experienced significant delays, requiring temporary fixes while ultimately delaying the delivery of new capabilities to the war fighter. Both SBIRS and the new GPS ground segment triggered a Nunn-McCurdy breach — a statutory threshold designed to catch massive cost growth within government programs and force a reassessment of the acquisition process.
While addressing these consistent delays and cost overruns was one of the reasons for creating the Space Force in 2019, lawmakers have recently begun to express frustration with the new service’s perceived failure to make significant progress on reform. In a virtual May hearing, House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense chair Rep. Betty McCollum criticized the Space Force for not adequately addressing the issue.
“In the 16 months since Space Force was established, significant progress has been made in standing up this operations unit,” said McCollum. “However, while progress has been made on the operations side, progress in addressing long-standing acquisitions issues has been disappointing so far. Too often over the past two decades, the space acquisitions programs have been delivered late, over budget, and sometimes billions of dollars over budget.”
Even before the establishment of the Space Force, the Space and Missile Systems Center — operating under the U.S. Air Force — made significant attempts to speed up delivery of Next Gen OPIR. Instead of the typical decade-long development cycle for exquisite satellite systems, the military pushed for a rapid prototyping approach that would speed-track development to just five years. Using a new middle-tier acquisition process, increasing the program’s budget and funneling money to it through multiple reprogramming requests, the Air Force tried to push the launch of the first Next Gen OPIR satellite up to 2025.
The GAO report acknowledges several deliberate choices made by the Air Force and Space Force to reduce risk on this accelerated schedule, such as the decision to fund two competing subcontracts for the mission payload and the development of an interim ground system. However, the report finds those efforts will likely fall short of the program’s goals due to the remaining technological challenges.
In addition to any technical challenges, the report finds that there are managerial issues that could lead to delays. According to the GAO, the Space and Missile Systems Center — since replaced by Space Systems Command — is understaffed, making it difficult for it to fulfill its role as lead integrator for Next Gen OPIR. Space Force officials told the government watchdog a new support contract in 2021 will allow them to staff up appropriately.
The GAO makes two recommendations for the Space Force in its report: provide more realistic and transparent estimates to Congress, and create a formal plan for interagency coordination on OPIR. The report notes the Department of Defense has said it intends to provide more detailed information to lawmakers.
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.