The Space-based Infrared System (SBIRS) is a constellation of integrated satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) and high elliptical orbit (HEO) and ground-based data processing and command and control centers. This system is designed to provide early missile warning, cue missile defenses, deliver technical intelligence (TECHINT), and support battlespace awareness.1
This system is intended to replace the aging DSP system of satellites. SBIRS satellites are able to scan large swaths of territory to detect missile activity and can also hone in on areas of interest for lower-scale activities, including launches of tactical ballistic missiles. These sensors are independently tasked, meaning the satellite can both scan a wide territory and fixate on a particular area of concern simultaneously. The first satellite, SBIRS GEO-1, launched in May 2011 and was followed in March 2013 by the SBIRS GEO-2 satellite.2 In July 2015, the Air Force delivered its third satellite, though it plans to store it and launch the fourth satellite first, which is slated for an October 2016 launch.3 In addition to the dedicated satellites in GEO, the system also includes two missile warning sensors hosted on classified satellites in HEO that were launched in November 2006 and June 2008.4
The constellation has a continuous view of all of the earth’s surface, which it images every 10 seconds while searching for infrared (IR) activity indicating heat signatures.5 SBIRS is able to detect missile launches faster than any other system and can identify the missile’s type, burnout velocity, trajectory, and point of impact.6
The system was initially designed to include satellites in low earth orbit (LEO) in what would have been called SBIRS-Low. However, this program was incorporated into the STSS program in 2001 and handed over to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).7 The current plan for SBIRS, initially dubbed SBIRS-High, which consisted of assets in GEO and HEO and intended to replace the Defense Support Program (DSP) and provide continuous detection and tracking capabilities.
SBIRS GEO was deployed in 2011 and consists of both taskable and nontaskable sensors with both scanning and staring payloads with short- and mid-wave infrared radars. It is able to both have a hemispheric ground of view as well as see very close to the ground and has a much more rapid revisit rate than DSP, its heritage system. The GEO sensor payload weighs 1,100 lb. and each satellite reportedly has a pointing accuracy of 0.05 degrees due to three-axis stabilization and a design life of 12 years or more.8
SBIRS HEO, launched in 2006, was the first deployed asset. It is re-taskable and includes a scanning sensor composed of short- and mid-wave infrared radars that can see close to the ground. The GEO sensor weighs 530 lb.
The program has been under development since 1996, and reached initial operating capacity in 2013. The long procurement period has been attributed to the need to develop infrared sensors with “three times the sensitivity of those in the legacy constellation, and twice the ‘revisit’ rate… [that are able to] operate in multiple infrared wavelengths, enabling them to detect and characterize a wider range of infrared phenomena.”9
As of 2015, the system’s current total program cost was almost $19B for six satellites, an increase from the $5.2B for five satellites estimated at the time of procurement in 1996. As of 2015, two of the four planned satellites are in orbit as well as three complementary scanning sensors on intelligence satellites in HEO. The system also integrates with legacy DSP satellites still in orbit. This “system of systems” will be able to detect ballistic missile launches across the globe near instantaneously and be able to notify other U.S. assets, including aegis ships.10
SBIRS is positioned so that it would be the first U.S. asset to detect a ballistic missile launch. Once it detects significant activity, that information is transmitted to Air Force Space Command in Colorado and subsequently to North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and other relevant parts of the military who will decide whether the launch threatens the United States or its interests.11
Though the system was designed primarily for missile defense purposes, its short- and mid-wave IR sensors can detect any significant infrared event on the globe, including explosions, fires, and plane crashes. SBIRS provides satellite IR data on thousands of non-missile related events every year. The National Air and Space Intelligence Center keeps “a catalog of signatures—electromagnetic and IR—of aircraft, missiles and other military hardware operating globally.” This can be used to understand what’s going on in crowded operational theaters where there are many actors at play.12
Furthermore, TECHINT provided by SBIRS is likely to have helped the U.S. intelligence community piece together the events surrounding the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) by a Russian-made BUK missile on July 17, 2014. “[SBIRS] can filter out information about a specific event. The shootdown of an airliner would produce a hot explosion, and operators could likely use the system’s infrared data to forensically image the plume of the offending missile and, perhaps, an approximate location of its launch point. The data could then be correlated against other sources of intelligence to suggest who commanded that particular missile.”13
The system’s non-missile role has increased exponentially since its launch. The Air Force detected and tracked 8,000 IR events in all of 2014 and had already detected over 7,000 between January and August 2015. This increased role will be supported by the creation of a Joint Overhead Persistent Infrared Battlespace Awareness Cell expected to be operational by mid-2016.14