Artist rendition of a Space Based Infrared System satellite. Credit: U.S. Air Force

Our space-based missile warning systems must be upgraded and enhanced to address the changing strategic environment.

China and Russia have been rapidly developing and fielding new threats to theater-based forces and the U.S. homeland — from the more familiar ballistic missiles to a more diverse set of ballistic, cruise and hypersonic weapons capable of achieving greater reach. In addition, cyber attacks, lasers, high-powered microwave emitters, jamming and anti-satellite missiles are being developed, fielded and can hold all our vital space assets at risk. 

To address these threats, the U.S. Space force is developing the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next-Gen OPIR) constellation of satellites in geosynchronous and polar orbits. 

These satellites are a critical element of the nation’s strategic missile warning enterprise, and have resiliency features designed to ensure U.S. warfighting commanders can operate through contested scenarios should they extend to space.

Next-Gen OPIR is the Space Force’s largest procurement program but it’s not well understood, in part due to it high level of classification. Too often people think that Next-Gen OPIR is a one-for-one replacement of its predecessor, the Space Based Infrared Satellite System (SBIRS). 

The new satellites — currently being developed by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — will provide more advanced capabilities than SBIRS. Next Gen OPIR provides nearly full Earth coverage with fewer satellites and three times better sensitivity to dimmer targets such as hypersonic missiles and lower flying ballistic missiles. 

Next-Gen OPIR sensors can detect static and moving targets two times faster than SBIRS, and can detect multiple targets with an image that is 25 percent better quality than SBIRS and can characterize a target with accuracy two times better than that of current missile warning systems. 

The Space Force is using a new type of development and acquisition program  for Next-Gen OPIR that leverages rapid prototyping methods to get the system on orbit faster than satellites of similar complexity. 

In an era where speed matters, this one counts. In 2018, using congressionally approved acquisition authorities for rapid prototyping, the Space Force was able to get satellites on contract one year earlier than older approaches. The goal is to have the rapid prototyping effort complete by 2023 to enable the first geostationary orbit (GEO) launch by 2025. 

During the deployment phase, each new vehicle will augment SBIRS for the missile warning mission. 

Some in Washington, including the Government Accountability Office (GAO), have been sowing doubts about the Next-Gen OPIR acquisition strategy and whether the timelines are realistic. They suggest the program will require much more time and money to get the system developed and launched. 

However, reality suggests a different outcome. This program is proving to be quicker and more cost effective than its predecessors. Of note, it is far outpacing SBIRS, which was plagued by schedule delays and cost overruns. 

Bottom line: this new system is critical to ensure a robust, survivable missile warning capability for our national command authorities. The data that this system provides is essential for our national leaders during times of crisis and protects the U.S. homeland against existential threats. 

Congress should fully support this program and the U.S. Space Force must work tirelessly with their industry partners to ensure this system gets deployed as soon as possible. The threat environment is changing fast, and our space-based capabilities must keep pace.  

Christopher M. Stone is senior fellow for space studies at the Spacepower Advantage Research Center, Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. He is the former special assistant to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy in the Pentagon.