The Space-based Infrared System (SBIRS) is a U.S. military satellite system one would not normally associate with the fight against Daesh. Designed to warn of ballistic missile launches, the sophisticated and mostly classified satellite system is now proving to be a valuable intelligence asset in crushing Daesh on the battlefield.
The SBIRS constellation of satellites, distributed between geostationary and highly-elliptical earth orbits, are the U.S. military’s primary means of providing strategic early warning of the launch of ballistic missiles by countries like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Using sensitive infrared sensors that can detect the heat emanating from a missile’s engine as it launches from its silo or launch-pad, SBIRS sends that data back to the United States in a matter of seconds where the launch, its location, and likely trajectory are quickly analysed, and then a response – if any are needed – is decided.
The launch is either monitored and catalogued for later analysis, or regional and theatre missile defence systems are cued to deal with the incoming threat. If the launch is aimed at the United States or treaty allies under the nuclear deterrence umbrella provided by Washington, DC, then a more frightening set of decisions must be made.
Built by Lockheed Martin, with the infrared sensors provided by Northrop Grumman, the SBIRS system provides what the U.S. military calls “overhead persistent infrared,” or OPIR.
Those sensitive infrared sensors on SBIRS satellites are also able to pick up the heat signatures of small explosions, large fires, and other signs of mass human activity – ranging from forest fires and factory explosions through to the clearing of crops and trees and conventional military conflict.
And it is this capability that is making SBIRS so useful in the fight against Daesh in Syria and other places.
“Overhead persistent infrared information from” the Space-Based Infrared System, or SBIRS, “is used daily as one of multiple streams of intelligence information in theater…“enables us to ascertain where kinetic events like explosions are happening because the technology can track heat signatures with great fidelity,” said Colonel John Dorrian, U.S. Air Force, quoted by Bloomberg.
Colonel David Miller, U.S. Air Force, commander of Air Force Space Command’s 460th Space Wing that operates SBIRS, is in no doubt about its usefulness in the fight against Daesh: “Our unique attribute is persistent global surveillance, so I was never in doubt that the unblinking eye of SBIRS was there to provide me surveillance and warning of threats to the U.S. embassy and U.S. forces in Iraq.”
“These SBIRS sensors are the most capable infrared that we have ever produced,” said Colonel Miller.
In the past several months U.S. Secretary of Defence Ash Carter, and his deputy, Robert Work, have hinted in public speeches that U.S. military space forces are providing critical capabilities in the fight against Daesh. The revelations of the contribution of SBIRS in that fight are but one part of the effort that satellites provide.