Interview: How the US plans to improve its missile warning satellites

WASHINGTON — The ballistic missile attack on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq about a year ago provides one of the starkest examples of how America’s missile warning satellites operate.

U.S. Space Force leadership has credited the guardians operating the Space-Based Infrared System with saving lives in that attack, having provided the critical warning that missiles were inbound and allowing war fighters to seek cover seconds before the missiles hit the bases. One year later, members of the 2nd Space Warning Squadron took C4ISRNET inside what it was like operating the SBIRS constellation that night with American lives on the line.

In a separate interview, Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt, commander of the Combined Force Space Component Command, spoke with C4ISRNET about what the military has learned since that attack, how the Space Force works to keep its guardians prepared, and what’s next for America’s space-based missile warning architecture.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In the year since the attack, what did we learn about America’s space-based missile warning capability and the response to that attack? Talking with the operators, it does seem like things went according to plan, as much as you can plan for events like this.

Oh, absolutely. And I think what we’ve learned from this is, as we have done since Desert Storm, we continue to improve our missile warning capability. So I think you recognize in Desert Storm ... we figured out that (our missile warning constellation) was used for strategic launches — so intercontinental ballistic missiles. And we could rework that, and it actually had greater sensitivity than we realized. We were able to work software and capabilities to get that down to do scope reporting. So I came into the Air Force right after Desert Storm, and that was considered the first space war.

We then have continued ever since that time to improve our tactics and techniques, to refine our capabilities and software in places where we can continually work on processes and capabilities, educating the theater, and the theater figuring out ... how to distribute that information to their bases in order for the folks to get the most duck and cover time when those missiles are inbound.

We’ve also … established a greater (intelligence) requirement to track these events and gather information over the years. So that allows us to do that planning that the operators talk to you about and to focus coverage, and to get the best capabilities (for the taxpayer’s dollar). As the Combined Forces Space Component Command, my job is (to) fight tonight with the resources in hand. So we are always looking for opportunities to improve our tactics, techniques and procedures or processes, how we talk and communicate with a peer.

(After) every one of these events, we do what’s called a debrief. And we did debrief this event, and we took some great takeaways back that we used. But it went as planned. And the team did a great job, and I’m very proud of them.

In the near term, the U.S. plans to launch another SBIRS satellite. Further down the line we’re talking about the Space Development Agency’s tracking layer and then Next Gen OPIR coming later. Those are some huge programs. How are the United States’ missile warning capabilities going to change over the next decade? And how is that going to change how incidents like the Iranian attack play out?

Every one of the capabilities that you listed off are intended to improve our resiliency, our accuracy and reporting, and to address emerging and future threats. And so we’re always looking to improve our systems and make them better, smarter, faster, more accurate and more timely. And those systems are all driving towards those. You’ll notice they’re in different orbitology elements — that adds resiliency. You don’t put everything in GEO belt, you put it somewhere else.

You’d mentioned how improvements have been made since Desert Storm to speed up the early warning process. What lines of effort are in place to continue improving that over the next, say, 10 years?

When we were a peaceful domain and an uncontested domain, very much you focused on the satellites. And I will say we always sort of had a “Field of Dreams” concept: Build it, and they will come. We would launch satellites, and if we had to take money from ground or training or other things in order to launch the satellite on time, we would do that.

We are now fighting in a contested domain — you can’t do that. Because if you don’t have the ground architecture robust enough to command and control all the satellites, and to be able to be interchangeable, to be cyber defended, and to be able to add capability, you’re going to struggle. So what we’ve tried to go to is a common ground system called Enterprise Ground Service. For the future, we’re looking at how do you create app-based applications to then allow you to expand or contract your constellations as need be. This is now software-based versus hardware-based.

I’m not necessarily worried about the chassis and the bus itself. I’m more concerned about the guts, and can I reprogram the software more rapidly to adjust to threats and other things happening. And you’re doing that both on the satellite and in the ground system, as well as any receiver equipment. So think military satellite communications receivers, missile warning receivers, our common operational pictures — all those things.

That’s underpinned by a focus on cybersecurity of all these systems as well, because we also recognize those systems, as you go more digital and more software based, then you also have to make sure you’re protecting yourself from the cyber threats, which we know Russia and China are very, very strong on as near peer competitors.

In the last couple years, we’ve seen some new companies entering the missile warning enterprise, specifically when it comes to the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor and the Space Development Agency. Do you think it’s valuable to diversify the supply chain for some of these satellite programs?

I mean bottom line, diversification is always helpful to bring down price points and to get competition for software. When you have single vendors on things, it becomes harder. They control price, and they also then don’t have really any competition to incentivize them to improve. So again, I think competition is healthy in our government. That’s what we do within our economy.

(SpaceX CEO Elon) Musk has proven how much he’s able to lower launch costs, and he’s allowed other people to enter the business as well, based on some of the models he’s created. So I think that’s coming across the satellite development business, and ground system and software as well. So that’s great to see because that, again, is a plus for us as a department.

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