Missile Detection Satellites
U.S. Missile Detection and Defense
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA), headquartered in the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, conducts acquisition and testing of systems to defend the United States against incoming missiles. This mission was formally enshrined in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) announced in 1983.
Since 1970, the United States has relied on space-based infrared sensors for detecting energy emitted from ballistic missile launches from other countries around the world. During 2016, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) continued to operate the primary means of detecting launches of missiles and space launch vehicles, using infrared satellites and sensors orbiting the Earth.
U.S missile defense has its roots in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), announced in 1983 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan. SDI was initially intended to defend the United States against the launch of thousands of nuclear-tipped Soviet missiles. SDI would have used a combination of advanced space and ground systems to shoot the missiles out of the sky.
The USAF continued missile detection operations in 2015 using a combination of legacy Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites, two Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) GEO satellites, and three SBIRS HEO sensor payloads hosted on classified satellites. The growth and evolution of the infrared satellites deployed in various orbits allows the USAF uninterrupted monitoring in the infrared spectrum of activities around the world, 24 hours a day.
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA’s) two Space Tracking and Surveillance System-Demonstrator (STSS-D) satellites remained fairly quiet in 2014. Launched in September 2009, the satellites continue to circle the Earth at an altitude of 1,350 kilometers (840 miles). The satellites can track a missile in “stereo” (when both satellites’ infrared payloads track and provide data on the same object) from the time of a missile’s launch until it re-enters the atmosphere.
There were two SBIRS GEO satellites and two SBIRS HEO payloads in operation by the end of 2014. These operated in concert with the older DSP satellites to fulfill all four missions. Two more SBIRS GEO satellites will be added to the SBIRS constellation, possibly around 2020. The USAF continues to pursue plans established in 1995 for integrating all OPIR satellite data, developing a new ground system and testing transmission of commands to multiple systems in March 2015.
Satellites are essential tools for detecting hostile missiles being fired at allied forces. Systems such as the USAF Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS)-High program are designed to monitor and give maximum warning of ballistic missile launches originating anywhere on the planet. The system consists of two HEO satellites, three Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) spacecraft in LEO, as well as two GEO satellites, the most recent one being launched in March 2013.
Some satellites are optimized to serve unique military functions. Missile launch detection satellites, such as the USAF Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS)-High program, are designed to monitor and give maximum warning of ballistic missile launches originating anywhere on the planet. As of October 2012, there were two SBIRS-High payloads hosted on spacecraft in highly elliptical orbits. A third payload is planned for delivery to the USAF in 2013.
Transportation-based activities also can be considered to include U.S. efforts at ballistic missile defense. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) was established in 1999 “to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack.” The MDA uses an integrated system of sensors and weapons to detect and destroy incoming ballistic missiles in their boost, midcourse, or terminal phase.