U.S. Air Force SBIRS Data Sharing Program in Full Swing

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The U.S. Air Force is sharing what service officials have described as “eye-watering” data from its missile warning satellites with the intelligence community as part of a wider effort to maximize exploitation of the system, according to service officials.

The primary mission of the Space Based Infrared System is to detect launches of strategic and tactical missiles, but the program has always had secondary missions including technical intelligence and battle space characterization. Other potential applications for the type of information collected by the satellites include weather and forest-fire monitoring.

Now, with two dedicated SBIRS satellites on orbit — the second was declared operational in late 2013 — “the data is flowing,” said Col. Mike Guetlein, commander of the remote sensing directorate at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. “There’s more people getting the data than have ever gotten the data before.”

Mike Guetlein missile warning
U.S. Air Force Col. Mike Guetlein, commander of the remote sensing directorate at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Joe Juarez

During a press briefing April 15 here at the 31st Space Symposium, Guetlein did not specify which intelligence agencies are using the data, but he previously has said the Air Force has a “real time transfer service” agreement with the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency for overhead persistent infrared surveillance (OPIR) information. OPIR is the broader data category that typically includes missile warning at its heart.

The NGA analyzes and distributes maps and other geospatial information products to both military and intelligence-agency customers.

The real-time transfer program with the intelligence community is one of several Air Force SBIRS data sharing efforts, Guetlein said. Industry is among the potential recipients, he said, the idea being “to understand the innovative ways we can use that data.”

The Air Force’s discussions with industry are “just starting,” Guetlein said, but the service hopes businesses could develop SBIRS data applications that would be sold back to the government for military or civil purposes.

“Now that all the sensors are starting to deliver, it’s time to start seeing what kind of synergies we can get out of the data,” Guetlein said.

When fully deployed, SBIRS will consist of four dedicated satellites in geosynchronous orbit and two infrared sensors hosted aboard classified satellites in highly elliptical orbit. Each satellite has two main sensor capabilities: a scanner that sweeps across wide swaths of territory and a starer that maintains constant surveillance of a smaller area for more-timely warning of missile launches.

Guetlein said the intelligence community is receiving data from both the SBIRS staring and the scanning sensors.

Although the second dedicated SBIRS satellite was commissioned well over a year ago, data from the staring sensors have only become available recently by virtue of congressional cash infusion last year into software development for the SBIRS ground system. That work had been deferred so the Air Force could focus on getting the first satellite in the long-delayed and overbudget program launched and accepted.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in a speech here April 16 that the Air Force also expects SBIRS to “deliver what we hope to be game-changing capabilities to combatant commanders with eyes on the battle space.”

Toward that end, Guetlein’s directorate has started a data exploitation to division to contact other combatant commanders to see if there are ways they could make use of the SBIRS data and to promote “maximum distribution” of the information, he said.