Birds of a (pricey) feather
When it comes to developing government satellites, the National Reconnaissance Office isn't the only game around. Indeed, the Air Force runs an even bigger program, operating most of the estimated 100 U.S. military satellites roaming the globe. Unlike the NRO's satellites, these birds don't spy on terrorists and U.S. enemies. But they do perform critical tasks: They direct bombs to their targets, track enemy missiles, and provide war fighters with navigational assistance, weather forecasts, and secure communications.
Like the NRO's, however, the Air Force's satellite program is riddled with problems, including massive cost overruns. "The programs in almost every respect," says William Schneider, chairman of the U.S. Defense Science Board, "are out of whack." Schneider's board, along with an Air Force task force, is completing a report on the nation's military and intelligence satellite programs. "Many of the programs are over budget, behind schedule, and running into technical difficulties," he told U.S. News. In June, congressional investigators issued a report cataloging similar problems. That is a sobering reality, considering that the United States plans to spend $144 billion on military and intelligence space systems over just the next four years.
Bloated. Two Pentagon projects illuminate the problem. The Space Based Infrared System (known as SBIRS-High) and the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) are part of the nation's planned missile defense shield. Last year, they were restructured because of large cost overruns, schedule delays, and technical problems. The SBIRS-High project, intended to provide missile warning and distinguish objects on a battlefield, now is projected to cost $8.5 billion, up from an estimated $4.1 billion. That's not surprising. In just five years, SBIRS-High was restructured four times and had four different program directors.
The STSS program, which will include as many as 30 satellites to detect and track enemy missiles, is not faring any better. Five of its six critical technologies, including scanning and tracking sensors, may not be available for the planned launch of the first satellite in four years. A House panel concluded that STTS costs had grown to a whopping $23 billion, from $10 billion. Last year, the project was scaled back; fewer satellites will be built.
Senior Air Force officials have warned contractors that they will abandon problem programs. But because the defense industry has consolidated, the few remaining contractors hold the Pentagon "hostage," says one former official.
Failure, in such an environment, often breeds success. Despite continuing problems, the Air Force awarded a prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, an additional $2.2 billion last September to help get one project back on track. -Douglas Pasternak
This story appears in the August 11, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.