One thing’s for sure about nuclear deterrence: it isn’t likely to work if you don’t know you’re being attacked. That’s why Lockheed Martin’s disclosure on May 24 that the first Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellite has reached geosynchronous orbit was so important: because without it, the nation’s ability to detect and respond to hostile missile launches would have been very much in question.
The Pentagon doesn’t like to talk about the status of the U.S. satellite constellation that provides early warning of nuclear attacks, but there is good reason to believe that some of the spacecraft are on their last legs. Not only has the new satellite taken longer to reach orbit than expected, but the last of the legacy Defense Support Program satellites was lost in a launch mishap. So although there’s no direct evidence of a gap in missile warning, we can reasonably infer that a few of the satellites currently in use are “single-string” spacecraft — meaning if any more features fail, they will lose their ability to perform the early-warning mission effectively.
The replacement satellite now in geosynchronous orbit — which matches its speed to the earth’s rotation so it stays above the same spot — is a big improvement over the legacy birds. In fact, the desire to add new features is a key reason why it took so long to reach orbit. Using both staring and scanning sensors, it will provide vital information for strategic deterrence, missile defense, conventional combat and technical intelligence analysis (like what’s going on in North Korea). The spacecraft probably could have made it into space a lot sooner if some of the “key performance parameters” were jettisoned, but policymakers elected to keep all 18 intact. So when Lockheed Martin says the new system is “the most technologically advanced military infrared satellite ever developed,” that’s no exaggeration. There’s literally never been anything like it.
It tells you something about how the news business works that there was almost no coverage earlier in May when the new satellite was launched, because — no kidding — if the launch had failed it would have led to a crisis in national security. Like I said, nuclear deterrence doesn’t work if you don’t know you’re being attacked. But with successful launch of the initial Space-Based Infrared System satellite followed by its placement in the correct orbital plane, the margin of safety in national security has been significantly improved. The U.S. Air Force deserves credit for keeping this vital program on track, and the industry team that built it — which includes Northrop Grumman as the payload integrator — has accomplished an impressive technical feat. It turns out that America still leads the world in some things that matter.
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