Thoughts on the Space Based Infrared System

  • Published
  • By Dr. Edward Tagliaferri
  • SMC/Remote Sensing Directorate

One would think the military would create a program so well defined that it would be a routine effort to get it funded, and implemented.  Cut and dried.

Not so with the Space Based Infrared Satellite System (SBIRS). 

The idea of using space based sensors was first conceived during the Cold War.  Shortly after WWII, the two super powers of the world, the United States and the Soviet Union, became adversaries. At first the threats were airborne, and in response, the U.S. placed warning radars along the periphery of the U.S. to give the National Command Authorities warning that an attack was imminent, and  give them time execute plans to cope with the attack.

But, in October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first object to orbit the earth.  While a scientific curiosity to the world, it was a wakeup call for the U.S.:  the Soviets now had rockets powerful enough that could reach anywhere in the world within 30 minutes.  The radars were woefully inadequate to provide warning to the NCA in time for them to respond. A new approach was needed.

In the following years, the U.S. experimented with airborne and space based sensors, and in the early 1960’s, the space based Missile Defense Alarm System was successful in showing that infrared sensors could detect missile launches from space.  However, a sensor does not a missile warning system make, and in the late 1960’s, the Defense Support Program was conceived. 

DSP was a constellation of satellites, equipped with infrared sensors, connected to (what was then) super-fast computers and a very secure communications network. The system was to detect the launch of a missile, create a message, and send that message to the NCA in time for them to evaluate the situation, and execute plans to respond in a timely manner.

As a young physicist working at TRW in Redondo Beach, Calif., I was recruited to work on implementing the first ground station.  The first DSP satellite was launched in November 1970, and I joined the program shortly after the launch. Since the area of interest was the Soviet Union, the first operational DSP was placed in orbit over the Eastern Hemisphere, and therefore, the ground support station had to be in the Eastern Hemisphere as well. 

The U.S. chose to place the ground station in Australia, both because Australia was a staunch ally of the U.S., and because the remote location prevented any foreign intrusion at the station. The team of AF, contractor and Aerospace personnel was successful, and the ground station became operational in less than a year. 

I can still remember those early days: working on crew, watching the computers read out and presenting the information gathered by the sensors to operators in a darkened operations center. The importance of what we were doing was not lost on us. We were the first line of defense of the nation, and I can remember sitting there in Australia, watching missile launches, wondering if this was just another test, or the beginning of an attack. More than once it occurred to me that, if it were an attack, I would be witnessing the destruction of my homeland from thousands of miles away.

The next operational satellites were place over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and new ground stations had to be put in place in the U.S. and in Europe to support them.  In the summer of 1972, I was sent back to the US, and began working in Denver, Colorado, at a place with the innocuous sounding name of the Multi-Purpose Facility.  Part of our job at the MPF was to act as a development facility in support of the main operational ground station at Buckley AFB, a few miles away. 

Here, in a less intense environment, I was able to look more closely at the data the sensors were sending down from orbit.  At the time, just about everything about the program was classified, including the name. To the outside world, we were program 949 (that changed to 647 when one of the site commanders thought it would be neat if he had extension 949 for his telephone number; He was relieved of command). 

In a fortunate coincidence, the commander of the MPF was also a physicist, and he and I hit it off immediately.  It quickly became clear to me that the sensors were detecting more than missile launches.  There were detections of events besides missile launches that had military significance. My AF commander saw the potential benefit of exploring these events, and he made me the Director of Analysis for the MPF.  I was given a team of 30 AF, civilian and contractor personnel to exploit the new capabilities. 

Because of our connection to the operational site, we were able to implement capabilities that had military significance very quickly. The result was the development of a series of algorithms that addressed military targets in ways we never imagined.  It was here the first Walker was developed, an algorithm that could detect and track targets of high military value. The icing on the cake?  We could use the communications network already in place to provide the information to military commanders in very short timelines. 

Over the following years, several more algorithms were developed and implemented. The result were DSP now had a number of applications that grew into new missions.  The new missions were formalized when the SBIRS program (the follow on to DSP) was conceived. SBIRS was not just for missile warning, but the missions included missile defense, battlespace awareness and technical intelligence.   

When Col. (now Brig. Gen.) Michael Guetlein became the director of SBIRS, the Weather Systems Directorate was added to SBIRS, to create the Remote Sensing Directorate.  General Guetlein is very supportive of exploiting the capabilities of the SBIRS/DSP sensors, not only for military applications, but also for civilian applications, such as weather support. The result is the nation as a whole will benefit from the investments made in SBIRS by the Department of Defense.