Air Force, Congress track missile program

An Air Force missile detection system, slated for a significant funding increase in the Bush administration's fiscal 2003 budget, has come under scrutiny at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

The Space-Based Infrared System combines space- and ground-based systems to detect missile launches and determine where they will strike. The second phase is scheduled to receive more than $814 million in 2003, an increase of more than $376 million over fiscal 2002 funding. The Air Force is building the system in three phases.

But Air Force undersecretary Peter Teets, speaking at a Pentagon press briefing Feb. 7, described the system as plagued by poor management and cost overruns.

At a press briefing the next day, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee, said the second phase of the program, known as SBIRS-High and slated for work in fiscal 2003, was under the microscope for unacceptable cost growth.

Due to management concerns, the Air Force has restructured its fiscal 2003 proposal for carrying out the third phase of the program, which will add low-orbiting satellites for tracking missiles en route, according to Defense Department officials.

Teets, who is also director of the National Reconnaissance Office, said he blamed the problems, especially with SBIRS-High, on both the government and the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp.

The problem "has the attention of Lockheed Martin and its highest management," said Teets, a former president and chief operating officer of the company.

Development setbacks, unstable funding and new user requirement ideas that were not budgeted in the cost or schedule were three main issues that forced Lockheed to establish a new baseline for SBIRS-High, said a spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

Lockheed is working with the Air Force to define a revised schedule and cost for the remainder of SBIRS-High, said the spokeswoman.

The Air Force has commissioned two program reviews —one by the program office and one by an independent team.

"If we're not pleased, if we're not satisfied with corrective actions and the restructured SBIRS-High program, we'll have options to go another direction," Teets said.

Baker Spring, a research fellow in national security policies at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., said criticism of SBIRS was deserved, but the program should continue.

"I suspect that there's more to be lost canceling and starting again," he said. "I believe we have the technologies well in hand, but [need] a tighter lid with the way the program is being managed."

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