Jeffrey LewisSpace Based Radar for Missile Defense

It slices, it dices, it detects missile launches.

Congress slashed the Space Based Radar program budget (- $250 M) in favor of funding the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), which detects missile launches. Now, the Defense Science Board releases a June 2004 report entitled Contributions of Space Based Radar to Missile Defense.

This is just an last ditch effort to save one of the Administration/’s pet programs. In case you don/’t know (or forgot) why Congress killed this thing, take a look at the language in the House Appropriations Committee Report (with which the Conferees agreed) noting cost over-runs and coverage gaps:


The Air Force requested $327,732,000 for the Space Based Radar program. The Committee recommends $75,000,000, a reduction of $252,732,000, and directs that the Air Force fundamentally restructure the program to meet the concerns addressed below.

The Space Based Radar (SBR) program is intended to provide near continuous, global radar imagery and surface moving target indication (SMTI) as well as high resolution terrain information. Advocates describe the program as a key contributor to achieving “global persistent surveillance”. Though the pursuit of persistent surveillance is a noble goal, the Committee believes the Space Based Radar program as currently structured:

  • Is neither affordable nor likely to produce the results claimed by its advocates, within any reasonable definition of cost, technical challenge, or risk.
  • Would consume a disproportionate share of resources from within an already highly stressed DoD space and surveillance budget;
  • And finally, is simply a less-pressing priority than many other near-and mid-term needs confronting the Department of Defense.

SBR Cost.–Regarding cost, recent independent cost estimates by the OSD Cost Analysis Improvement Group (CAIG) state that the acquisition and 12-year operations cost of the current SBR program of record–a 9 satellite constellation–would cost $34 billion in constant fiscal year 2004 dollars. This amount is roughly equal to the life cycle cost of virtually all other Air Force satellite programs combined, including Advanced EHF, Wideband Gapfiller, GPS, NPOESS, and SBIRS High. Moreover, there are many reasons to believe this estimate significantly
understates prospective SBR costs.

First, this is a “50 percentile” estimate, conducted prior to the concept definition phase. Historically, actual program costs in-[313]crease from this point, sometimes dramatically, as requirements and technical issues become clearer with time. As a point of comparison, cost estimates for the Space Based Infrared System High (SBIRS High) program have increased some 450 percent from a similar stage in its development.

The Committee further notes the Air Force considers 9 satellites in low earth orbit to be less than half the number required to provide near continuous global moving target indication. The CAIG was not asked to estimate the cost of an objective SBR constellation of 21-24 satellites, but the cost of such a constellation could exceed $60 billion based on the current understanding of program requirements and technology.

Alternative SBR configurations offer little prospect of mitigating such costs. For example, in the hope that fewer satellites will translate to lower costs, some concepts suggest putting fewer(though significantly larger) satellites in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO). While this approach may have some operational advantages, it apparently does not reduce costs, as the recently completed Air Force Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) estimates that a full MEO constellation would cost about 40 percent more than a 24 satellite LEO constellation.

The Committee is also concerned about the cost and operational magnitude of the infrastructure needed to support the SBR program. For example, just three to four SBR satellites, working at peak load, would consume bandwidth equal to the entire capacity of the yet-to-be-developed Transformational Communications Satellite system. Likewise, SBR poses daunting challenges for any supporting ground infrastructure—always a significant cost driver for space programs. For example, it is widely accepted that SBR will generate far too much data for traditional human exploitation. Instead, the success of the program depends on significant advances in artificial intelligence, a field with a spotty track record at best.

SBR Operational Capability.–Regarding system capability, the Committee harbors additional concerns about the performance of an SBR constellation, particularly with regard to tracking moving targets. The Committee has consistently maintained that the baseline 9 satellite constellation, as well as more robust alternatives, would be unable to track vehicles effectively because of significant coverage gaps.

The Committee/’s position has been largely validated by the Air Force/’s SBR Analysis of Alternatives (AoA). Though AoA briefing harts attributed some limited tracking to a 9 satellite system, the Air Force later admitted this tracking was provided completely by airborne assets. More disturbing, even a full 21 satellite constellation loses track on most high value targets in just minutes. Further, the Air Force analysis did not take into account adversary use of even simple denial and deception techniques.

Another DoD analysis suggests that even the meager performance identified in the AoA is overly optimistic. This independent analysis indicates a 24 satellite system would provide only 55 percent coverage when terrain and relative vehicle speeds are considered–and that between 96 and 150 satellites would be required in low earth orbit to provide continuous coverage. [314]

Further, the Committee is concerned about the effectiveness of SBR in targeting many environments. For example, SBR is not well suited for moving indication in urban areas, nor can it image under sheds, in caves, in underground facilities, or under heavy foliage. The system will have limitations in mountainous terrain, due to obstructed views from various satellite look angles. In short, SBR provides limited capability in the very environments that adversaries are using today, and will likely continue to use, to hide activities from U.S. surveillance.

Committee Views and Recommendations.–In summary, in and of itself the SBR development program is fraught with enough uncertainties to call into question its viability. Indeed, even under the Administration/’s own plans the SBR program of record is underfunded in the current Future Year Defense Program by $2 billion, a shortfall resulting from the Department/’s unwillingness to fully fund this program. The Committee sees little prospect of this changing in light of the other fiscal challenges confronting the Department.

These include the well-documented “procurement bowwave”; this Administration/’s emphasis on missile defense and other transformational programs; and now, and most importantly, the as yet-unbudgeted future manpower, operational, and equipment recapitalization requirements stemming from operations in Iraq and the Global War on Terrorism. The Committee concludes that against these demands, SBR simply cannot be afforded budget priority.

Without a new approach, the Committee sees little future for the Space Based Radar program. Accordingly, the Committee recommends $75,000,000, a reduction to the request of $252,732,000. These funds are provided to redirect the Air Force/’s development efforts towards technologies and concepts that would lead to program costs far lower than currently conceived. The focus should be on seeking breakthroughs that fundamentally change the cost-benefit equation for a space based radar system.

But its John Ker
ry who wants to defend the country with spitballs. Nyah, nyah.