Air Force Offers Hints on Next-generation Missile Warning System

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WASHINGTON — All options, including enhanced or possibly even stripped-down capabilities, appear to be on the table as the U.S. Air Force mulls the future of its missile warning satellite constellation, according to service officials.

Full-scale development work began this summer on an experimental missile warning sensor, according to documents and industry officials, and the Air Force also is eyeing advanced data processing technologies. But under a worst-case budget scenario, the Air Force might wind up having to make do with less capability than it has on orbit today, one official said.

Currently the Air Force relies primarily on the Space Based Infrared System and the legacy Defense Support Program satellites for strategic and theater missile warning. When fully deployed, SBIRS will include four dedicated satellites in geosynchronous orbit, infrared sensors hosted on classified satellites in highly elliptical orbits, and a network of ground stations to receive, process and distribute the data.

But the service is in the midst of an analysis of future missile warning alternatives that include at least four different satellite architectures, according to Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command.

“It’s going to look different, that much I know,” Hyten told reporters Sept. 17. He declined to be specific, but said the studies should be completed before the end of the year.

Hyten has voiced support for a concept known as disaggregation, whereby capabilities currently concentrated on large spacecraft would be dispersed among more platforms, the idea being to make critical space-based services less vulnerable to attack. In missile warning, there is talk of separating out the strategic and theater warning missions, both of which are currently carried out by each SBIRS spacecraft.

A total of six SBIRS satellites are under contract to Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, California; two of those have been launched to date. Lockheed Martin officials have questioned the wisdom of disaggregating strategic and theater missile warning missions, saying there advantages to having both capabilities aboard the same platform.

The debate over separating out the strategic and theater missile warning could prove academic if the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration return in 2016, however. A 2013 budget compromise eased some of sequestration’s more severe impacts for 2014 and 2015, but the law that introduced the across-the-board cuts remains in effect.

Col. Mike Guetlein, commander of the remote sensing systems directorate at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, said a return to sequestration could force the service to drop the theater missile warning mission from its future constellation and focus solely on the strategic threat.

Speaking Oct. 3 at a Capitol Hill breakfast forum on missile warning capabilities sponsored by the Marshall Institute, a think tank here, Guetlein also said the Air Force hopes to leverage advances in data processing for a SBIRS upgrade or replacement, especially since the service is considering bigger sensors that would collect even more information.

“We need to start learning how to exploit that side of the data and how do we process that,” Guetlein said. “We’re bringing down a lot of data today that we just don’t have the computing bandwidth to process and there’s many, many applications, including, civil and weather, that we need to take advantage of.”

Meanwhile, the Air Force requested $29 million in 2015 for wide-field-of-view sensor development under its SBIRS modernization account. The service is looking at separate projects to develop two experimental sensors, one with a 6-degree field of view and one with a 9-degree field of view, budget documents show.

According to documents and sources, a division of defense conglomerate L-3 Communications in June won a contract valued at $13 million to develop the 6-degree sensor. Five other companies competed for that work.

The outlook for the 9-degree sensor program is unclear, however. Guetlein said the effort is more a topic of academic discussion than anything else at this point.