US Space Force's $20bn missile warning system protects lives every day, says commander

Top-secret space programme could provide vital protection against powerful Iranian missiles

One of the SBIRS satellites undergoing testing in April 2020. Photo: Lockheed Martin
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A US satellite early warning system is protecting American forces and their allies in the Middle East by constantly scanning the entire planet for missile launches, a senior Space Force commander has told The National.

The US military's highly classified Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) became fully operational last year. The system comprises six bus-sized satellites 36,000km above Earth that track thermal radiation to identify potential missile launches.

It constantly covers the entire globe, but is capable of “staring” at certain regions to detect a wide range of threats and aircraft.

That ability is currently proving vital in the Middle East, according to Chief Master Sergeant Tina R Timmerman, who spoke to The National on the sidelines of the World Defence Show in Riyadh.

The system is “protecting lives” every day, said CMSgt Timmerman, in a region where Iran-backed militants have launched scores of missiles at US forces since regional tensions soared following the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war in October.

Each SBIRS satellite weighs about 4,500kg and is capable of detecting not only the heat emissions of missiles but also any aircraft in or around a combat zone.

CMSgt Timmerman praised the “outstanding detection capabilities” of SBIRS and said the information it provides about every aspect of a major attack, or in some cases weapons tests by US adversaries, is sent to “national decision makers”.

“Every single day there are lives that are being protected because of the decisions made and how the information is disseminated to the combatant commands,” she said.

“This system is never turned off and operates everyday, 24/7, 365,” added CMSgt Timmerman.

This constant coverage allows SBIRS to work as an early missile warning system to alert US forces and their allies of potential attacks, including by Iran-backed militias in the Middle East, who possess increasingly sophisticated weaponry.

Iran's missile threat

Iran-backed militias who are hostile to the US have now acquired powerful ballistic missiles that can wreck naval vessels or smash bunkers, as well as low-flying cruise missiles that are hard to detect.

Militias first gained access to these missiles during the Yemen civil war, when Iran transferred powerful weapons to the Houthi rebels. They have since been acquired by other Iran-backed militia groups across the region, such as Kataib Hezbollah, who Washington blamed for an attack on a US base in Jordan that killed three soldiers.

Iranian engineers have advanced the accuracy and power of their missiles thanks to the revolution in microelectronics. Unlike earlier models of Scud missiles, which many Iranian missiles are based on and which could hit targets within several kilometres, modern Iranian missiles can now hit targets within metres.

Early warning systems like SBIRS therefore play a vital role in minimising US casualties from missile attacks.

This was evident in January 2020 when Iran fired at least 12 ballistic missiles at a joint Iraqi-US base in western Iraq, Al Asad, in retaliation for a US drone strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, who had directed attacks on US forces.

The US later said SBIRS detected the launches and, while the missiles were airborne for just seven minutes, alerted their forces who ran to concrete shelters. Several empty buildings at the base were destroyed and 109 soldiers suffered brain injuries from concussion, but none were killed.

Now SBIRS is even more capable, after the final of the six satellites was launched last year.

While the US also has other early warning systems, including E-2 Hawkeye airborne radars that can track up to 2,000 objects within 650km, SBIRS has global coverage.

This is vital when some of Iran’s larger missiles have ranges in excess of 2,000km, complicating air defences due to the Earth’s curvature, which limits long-range radar.

Proving its worth

The crisis in the Middle East has been an opportunity for SBIRS to prove its worth. With a cost of $20 billion over two decades, the system is very expensive and was described by the Rand defence think tank in 2015 as an “unusually troubled programme characterised by particularly high-cost growth”.

One former SBIRS operator who spoke to The National described the system as “amazing”.

“SBIRS is an amazing thing because it will pick up significant infrared plumes from launches and while you obviously amalgamate, it's the first layer of missile warning. It will pick up the launch and ground-based radars would then pick up the missiles on their radar coverage,” says Ralph Dinsley, who was among the first operators to work on the project in 2003.

“It can pick up all the launches and potential impacts. Because what the system does is it's able to create what's known as a launch and predicted impact fan so they can work out the rough areas that these missiles are going to be launched from,” he said.

This is critical because it can rapidly assess what kind of missile is being used and whether it could be a regional attack using conventional explosives or an intercontinental nuclear attack.

“They don't get mixed up between space launches and ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] and short-range missiles and whatever else like that. SBIRS is able to actually pick up the launch, work out a rough area where it's going to impact and predict that to the operators,” Mr Dinsley said.

Those operators, Ms Timmerman says, working under high pressure, are mostly “our junior enlisted members and our junior officers.”

Missile defence operators are said to be among the most highly trained of US military personnel.

'Networked warfare'

CMSgt Timmerman also said that while the US already had the capability to track multiple crises across the world, the establishment of the dedicated Space Force in 2019 had consolidated all the nation's missile defence systems under one service.

Previously, the US Air Force operated a range of missile launch detection satellites, but they were focused on spotting nuclear escalation in the Cold War.

“We have had this capability for years operated under Air Force Space Command, prior to the United States Space Force’s inception. The Space Force has now consolidated all missile warning missions in the Department of Defence under one service,” CMSgt Timmerman said.

According to John J Klein at the Space Policy Institute, George Washington University, this capability forms part of what the US calls “networked warfare”, where eventually all branches of the military can share information on threats and targets simultaneously.

“Department of Defence on the US side routinely tries to integrate all the domains for operations, and then info sharing and intelligence collection,” he said.

However, Mr Klein pointed out that human commanders on the ground still face the ultimate final judgment call, which they have to take under high pressure with just minutes to decide.

He pointed to the example of Iran's 2020 attack on the Al Asad base in Iraq.

“The commanding officer at Al Asad had to make a judgment call. How soon do you move your people out? How many? Those lives that were saved were based on intuition and probably the experience of the senior people there, but they were able to fuse the SBIRS information to save a lot of people.”

Updated: February 07, 2024, 4:38 PM