WASHINGTON — The satellites expected to replace the Pentagon’s current missile warning constellation later this decade will dramatically boost the military’s ability to estimate where ballistic missiles are likely to land, a benefit for U.S. troops deployed overseas and civilians at home, according to Air Force officials.
Using the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High satellites to better estimate where a rocket might land could aid U.S. forces manning missile interceptors as they aim at the incoming target, said Air Force Col. Dwight Rauhala, chief of the surveillance, reconnaissance and spacelift division in the requirements directorate at Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colo.
This includes troops manning national missile defense interceptors deployed in Alaska and California, as well as those in charge of the short and medium range interceptor systems near battlefields around the world, Ray Yelle, deputy chief of the surveillance, reconnaissance, and spacelift division, said during a Jan. 11 telephone interview.
Improved impact point estimates can also help significantly reduce the area of military operations that might have to be placed on alert after a missile launch, Yelle said.
Troops must don gear intended to insulate them from a chemical or biological weapons attack and take other protective measures that may interfere with their work after a missile launch is detected, Yelle said. This can slow work including the readying of aircraft to take off from bases, he said. Pinpointing where a missile may land can greatly reduce the number of personnel that need to prepare for an attack, and will increase productivity, Yelle said.
The SBIRS High satellites are scheduled to begin replacing the Defense Support Program (DSP) constellation around 2007. Like its predecessor, SBIRS High is primarily known for its role in detecting ballistic missile launches.
The DSP satellites in orbit today also assist deployed troops in a variety of missions with data from their infrared sensors, said Col. Randy Weidenheimer, SBIRS program manager at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. Those satellites, 22 of which have been launched to date, were designed to provide early warning of ballistic missile launches, as well as detection of satellite launches and nuclear detonations, according to briefing charts used by Weidenheimer.
But the SBIRS High satellites are intended to be more sensitive than their predecessors and will include a new infrared sensor capable of staring at areas of interest for long periods of time, Weidenheimer said in a Nov. 15 interview.
The staring sensor will play a key role in the missions that SBIRS High will take on beyond its primary mission to detect missile launches, Yelle said.
Intelligence data from the DSP satellites, which are built by Northrop Grumman Corp. of Redondo Beach, Calif., and began launching in 1970, was used by troops during Operation Desert Storm, Weidenheimer said. Experience gained during that war and in battles since then has helped commanders better understand ways of taking advantage of the missile warning satellites, he said.
This experience has also helped officials designing the SBIRS High satellites identify capabilities that could be designed into the spacecraft upfront, Weidenheimer said.
“People recognize that there are relatively few ballistic missile launches compared to other infrared events, so we’re focusing more attention on those things,” Weidenheimer said.
The SBIRS High satellites are being built by, Sunnyvale, Calif. The system includes four satellites in geostationary orbit, one spare spacecraft, two sensors hosted by intelligence satellites in highly elliptical orbits and ground equipment.
The DSP constellation uses sensors that constantly scan the entire Earth, looking for activity.
The SBIRS High satellites each have a similar sensor that is continuously scanning, as well as the staring sensor, which enables them to pick up very brief bursts of heat, Weidenheimer said. The staring sensor can be used to cover a particular battlefield or another area of interest, according to the briefing charts.
The ability to pick up brief and much dimmer flashes of heat will help troops locate mobile missile launchers like those used against U.S. forces and allies by the Iraqi military during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, Weidenheimer said.
The SBIRS High satellites are being designed to locate events 60 percent faster than the DSP spacecraft, and determine a ballistic missile’s launch point twice as accurately as its predecessor, according to the briefing charts.
Picking up the launch of missiles from the mobile launchers faster could help U.S. forces pinpoint their location before the mobile launchers get away, he said. This will also be important as enemy nations are working to make their missiles more difficult to detect with shorter burn times and dimmer signatures, Rauhala said.
Along those lines, the SBIRS High satellites will also be far more capable than the current infrared satellites of detecting tanks and other ground vehicles, another SBIRS program official said.
Another use that troops may have for the staring sensor is bomb damage assessments of areas like ammunition dumps, Weidenheimer said. If U.S. forces hit an ammunition dump, it would likely trigger secondary explosions that could be picked up by the SBIRS satellites, he said.
The staring sensor will also help intelligence officials seeking to learn more about the types of rockets fired at the United States, Rauhala said. Longer looks at the missile can help characterize what type it is, which better enables intelligence officials to determine its range and where it might land, he said .