In 2018, the US Air Force announced its intention to cancel the seventh and eighth space vehicles in the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) program—a collection of satellites that provides early warning of incoming missiles—and declared its desire to transition over to the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared program, which will serve the same purpose but which proponents say will be less expensive and more robust. The escalating costs, and the vulnerability to countermeasures, seem to have motivated the decision to terminate the SBIRS program. In recent congressional testimony, Cristina Chaplain, the Government Accountability Office’s director for contracting and national security acquisitions, pointed out that SBIRS was “exceedingly ambitious, which in turn increased technology, design, and engineering risks. While SBIRS and other satellite programs provide users with important and useful capabilities, their cost growth has significantly limited the department’s buying power at a time when more resources may be needed to protect space systems and recapitalize the space portfolio.”
What went wrong with the SBIRS program, and what advantages might the Next Generation satellites have? To answer those questions, we first have to be brought up to speed.