(Washington, D.C.) Satellites and military space sensors often operate as a glaring, ever-present “electric eye” zooming in on earth to look for heat signatures coming from launching enemy rockets and ICBMs, force maneuvers and fast-changing tactical circumstances unfolding amid heavy fire and hostile aircraft approaching sensitive command centers and vital targets in need of Protection
Yet, how can human decision makers somehow discern, organize and process crucial, time-sensitive operational data at the “speed of relevance?”
Speed of Relevance
This predicament, of sorts, is fast-becoming more and more pressing as technologies evolve, and is exacerbated by how new streams of information flow increasingly accelerate both the speed of transmission and the sheer volume of incoming sensor data.
This challenge relates to matters of the most crucial military significance, such as the speed with which an Air Force Space Based Infrared system can process the data associated with a mission event. Not only do event signatures need to be found, but they also must be distinguished from seemingly similar signals, processed and placed within a broader mission context to the maximum degree Possible.
The dynamics with this, which of course pertain to the speed and precision with which human decision makers can optimize a response, represent the inspirational foundation upon which the Air Force is now architecting its Overhead Persistent Infrared enterprise and moving quickly with rapid prototyping efforts intended to streamline the technical development process.
Overhead Persistent Infrared Program [OPIR]
The OPIR Program, led by Lockheed Martin through a multi-billion deal with the Air Force, anticipates operating a new OPIR system by 2025.
OPIR is anticipated to massively improve and expand upon the technological capacity to detect, track and transmit time-sensitive threat information. The objective Next-Gen OPIR constellation consists of GEO and Polar satellites in sufficient numbers to meet global warming coverage with no exploitable holes (3 GEO + 2 Polar). The first GEO satellite is required to be ready to launch no later than 2025.
“OPIR maintains continuity with the modernized LM 2100 bus, however, the payloads have both new and more stringent requirements than SBIRS,” a Lockheed statement said.
Lockheed says it is making specific efforts to align its OPIR system with the Pentagon’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council specifications outlining the kinds of capabilities needed for a new generation of missile warning technology.
Naturally it will be able to detect the heat signature emerging from a missile launch, but OPIR also expands the curve beyond SBIR with new payloads, ground-terminal transmission and connectivity, data gathering, organization and analysis and substantially increased cyber resiliency.
Overhead Persistent Infrared Program [OPIR]: Upgrades
Developers say Next Gen OPIR includes several key upgrades over SBIRS.
- First, it detects more missiles including dimmer and quicker boosting types.
- Second, it provides coverage of missile targets with higher accuracy by using a more sensitive, accurate and faster frame rate sensor.
- Third, it’s sensors can resolve multiple targets with an image that is 25 percent better quality than SBIRS that improves incoming missile target counting. Finally, the hardened spacecraft now includes modern cybersecurity plus significant other measures for added resiliency and survivability against potential adversary space capabilities.
Future Operationally Resilient Ground Evolution [FORGE]
The challenge of organizing, distilling yet also networking, pooling or aggregating seemingly vast or limitless volumes of information is also providing the inspiration Lockheed Martin’s OPIR to connect with Raytheon Intelligence & Space innovation called Future Operationally Resilient Ground Evolution (FORGE) Mission Data Processing Application Framework.
The OPIR-Integrated FORGE system helps architect the technical apparatus to gather, store, safeguard and network OPIR related sensor information. It involves synchronizing fixed ground terminals with other nodes such as air and space assets; it also leverages cloud technology.
In effect, when Spaced-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) sensors detect the key indicators of an important mission event, the data is then pooled, organized, analyzed and made available to key decision Makers. This process will be substantially faster, more streamlined and comprehensive when networked with the merging OPIR system.
From SBIRS to OPIR
Air Force’s strategic vision regarding the evolution of modern space and air warfare, as thinking regarding a technical and tactical transition from SBIRS to OPIR has been evolving along an interesting and highly impactful trajectory.
A 2013 essay in the Air and Space Journal from the Air Force’s Air University discusses the strategic transition inspired in large measure by the advent of new technical platforms such as OPIR, and data application systems such as FORGE.
As part of a discussion about the architectural transition concepts from SBIRS to OPIR, the essay, called “Missile Warning Augmentation: a Low Risk Approach,” makes a point to address the advent of “disaggregation.”
“Initial concepts introduced by the center (Space and Missile Systems Center) include changing from SBIRS to a wide field of view (WFOV) disaggregated approach,” the essay writes.
This WFOV is exactly what OPIR seeks to establish, meaning that it is not only more precise, cyber hardened, resilient and networked, but it also removes any potential “gaps” or area in the GEO orbit in which a target could be tracked.
“Although the OPIR mission area has existed for decades as overhead non-imaging infrared with SBIRS and other systems, it is now the new kid on the block, integrating target-signature nuances, time, and place into persistent intelligence and operational products,” the essay writes.
By operating without risky “gaps” in coverage, OPIR can perform the increasingly crucial task of establishing a continuous “track” on a fast moving threat, such as hypersonics. There is great concern with certain threats which move beyond the earth’s atmosphere into space at unprecedented speeds, transitioning from one radar aperture field of view into another.
As a threat travels from one segmented field of view to another, it can get lost and make it extremely difficult for sensing systems and networks to establish a continuous “track” of a fast target such as a hypersonic missile traveling at five times the speed of sound.
This is the kind of reason why OPIR is being engineered with a decided emphasis upon upgradeability, meaning it is architected with a set of common, modular technical standards such that it can easily accommodate or integrate next-generation sensing technologies as they emerge.
In a paper describing its LM 2100 bus, Lockheed Martin says the system operates with….”a fully reprogrammable onboard mission processor which allows you to modify satellite configuration on orbit in response to changing business requirements.”
Given that the Air Force need for OPIR is often described as quite pressing, the service has placed the program into a “fast-tracked” status using something called 804 funding to “go-fast” with a compressed schedule which preserves quality yet expedites development to meet a pressing need. Part of this means aligning otherwise incremental or spread apart developmental phases, such as design, development and long-lead parts procurement, into a single compressed timeline.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.