The Air Force’s primary early warning missile system could one day use small satellites to assist in the work,.

Speaking at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event, Col. Dennis Bythewood, program executive officer for space development at the Space and Missile Systems Center. said DATE that the service was considering using a setup comprised of hundreds of satellites for the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared system.

OPIR will replace the Air Force’s current early warning missile system, the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS). Those satellites provide early warnings of ballistic missile attacks on the United States, its deployed forces, or its allies. The Air Force has awarded Lockheed Martin a $2.9 billion contract to build three geosynchronous OPIR satellites and has contracted with Northrop Grumman to build two satellites covering the polar regions.

Like it’s predecessor, OPIR will be comprised of a small number of large, expensive satellites operating in geosynchronous orbit. But according to Bythewood, Air Force leaders in Los Angeles are considering adopting a proliferated architecture for future OPIR capabilities.

“[OPIR] is a critical capability, but it is still small volume, highly capable satellites that are doing a critical job for our nation. What we’re learning across that mission area and many others is that the best approach from an enhanced resilience standpoint is to build scalable architectures that can adjust to the threat. So we’re looking at various orbits from our Space [Development] Agency,” he said.

The idea of hosting OPIR payloads in low earth orbit has been a popular idea in recent months. Defense officials have been floating the idea of a space sensor layer in low earth orbit as a way of detecting and tracking hypersonic weapons, which can elude much of the current missile warning system. In addition, leaders from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have said they expect to host OPIR payloads in their experimental small satellite constellation, project Blackjack.

However, Bythewood clarified that SMC wasn’t looking to replace the yet to be launched OPIR satellites, but to supplement them with small satellites.

“We’re looking at both LEO and MEO architectures as we walk down that line. The value of those two options moving forward is not in a replacement--one or the other--it’s an all. What we find is the threat to our systems are different at every orbit. The capabilities that we can get from our systems are different at every orbit,” he said.

For Bythewood, the small satellite approach is attractive for two main reasons: cost and resiliency.

“When we start to look at those scalable architectures, now instead of measuring an all-or-nothing choice on the next satellite — I need to go buy one $800 million satellite to provide capability over a region of the world — I can turn that on its head and say, ‘what if I buy a series of $50 million satellites that provide either the same or close to the same capability over a region, but also as an architecture give me the opportunity to expand that not on an $800 million chunk at a time, but on a $50 million chunk at a time,’” he said.

While the Pentagon can take advantage of economies of scale with small satellites, the shift would also open up opportunities for smaller companies to compete for contracts.

“It is hard if you’re a small company in the United States right now to break in to any one of these competitions. If you want to be an OPIR provider, you need to be able to build exquisite, one-off systems. The nice thing about, if you look at these proliferated constellations in different orbits [...] is we’re starting to drive down the standards of the interfaces and allow small companies to get into the mix," said Bythewood. “To be honest, the thing that I’m most excited about in that environment is really not even the capability [...] it’s that for probably the first time in almost 20 years, I’m entering a competitive environment in all of those mission systems, and that’s exciting for me as an acquirer,” he added.

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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