Posted inOpinion

OpEd: Solutions for Preventing a SBIRS Missile-Warning Crisis

I suspect the Loren Thompson commentary “SBIRS Backup Plan Looks Like Another Misstep” may be correct as printed in the April 24 issue of Space News , although I do not agree with the 10-year time scale for the backup — it can be shorter . While I have not reviewed the SBIRS (Space Based Infrared System ) program, I have spent a greater part of my life in the military space business, and this situation sounds familiar. I saw the unfolding of this program from the late 1980s as Boost Surveillance and Tracking System through the mid-1990s, a history that is worth discussing at another time. The question that comes to mind is: What process was used to come up with the current SBIRS backup plan? It seems to me that if the Defense Department believes, as I do, that the Tactical Warning/Attack Assessment (TW/AA) mission of the Defense Support Program (DSP) satellite constellation is as important today as it was in the past, then the process for defining a backup plan would have to be ruthless in its approach to assuring a basic TW/AA capability as the DSP constellation degrades.

One would hope that the process for defining the SBIRS backup plan would have taken a path along the following lines: the formation of a small group of professionals to examine a broad range of options; and t heir membership constrained to people who have no axes to grind, no vested interests, and expect no financial reward from any follow-on effort. Tasking of the group would be as follows:

– All alternatives “should be on the table.”

– The focus should be to examine DSP (not SBIRS) replacement options.

– The SBIRS backup mission should be constrained strictly to military TW/AA.

– Data content should be consistent with that provided by DSP, but should not be constrained by the system scanning technique.

– Improved data content should only be addressed as a part of a sensitivity analysis after the basic backup design has been established.

– Coverage should be a key variable to reflect the change in the geopolitical landscape since DSP was put into operation.

– Avoid the classic military-space capabilities approach, including unproven technological promises , impractical requirements and intelligence overlays that jeopardizes the basic military mission.

– The program should not be higher than the Secret level. This security level provides for complete visibility into the program’s technical approach and management.

– The development, testing and operational fielding of the system can be on a faster track because of the lower security, allowing for easier assessments and solutions to program difficulties.

– The deployment focus should be to place two satellites (in research and development configuration with operational capability if needed due to a DSP failure) in geostationary orbit as soon as possible.

– Test these satellites under all observing conditions.

– The satellites should have limited on board processing.

– Test the software on the ground, recognizing the fact that software is the greatest challenge.

The key concern of this group would be to lay out the most reliable and rapid options available to respond to a reduction in missile-warning capability when DSP starts to degrade. These options would be unconstrained by classic military criteria for space systems since the primary objective is to preserve the missile-warning function until SBIRS can be fielded. Examples of some considerations are:

– Spacecraft bus options that include commercial off-the-shelf platforms as well as military buses from other programs or optimized buses.

– Consideration of smaller sensor fields-of-regard in order to take advantage of off-the-shelf sensor technology. This consideration should allow for the examination of rapid reaction capabilities, which use smaller buses and boosters.

– Constellation flexibility should be a consideration, which may include deployment strategies that allow for multiple satellites with smaller fields of view.

– There should be a clear distinction between scanning sensors and starring sensors, and the limited understanding in each case concerning data processing.

– Since DSP was state-of-the-art, use of advanced technology should only be considered where existing technologies are no longer available from industry.

The difficulty with the above approach is the output from such a group would no doubt come under attack from those with a vested interest in preserving SBIRS. The primary concern of the SBIRS community, in the face of such a process, would be that their program could be relegated to a research and development effort, while a maximum effort is applied to the SBIRS b ackup plan.

Unfortunately, this situation is a direct result of the decision to terminate production of DSP prior to proving SBIRS (i.e., betting “on the come” that the technical community can produce).

W ill we ever learn?

Charles E. Heimach is a retired Air Force colonel who served as assistant deputy chief of staff for plans at Air Force Space Command through 1987, and served as deputy chief of staff for development plans at Space Systems Division, Los Angeles, until his retirement in 1991.