The U.S. Air Force Wants Better Infrared Technology—Here’s Why

October 24, 2021 Topic: Military Affairs Region: United States Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: MissilesWeaponsInfraredTechnologyRapid Response

The U.S. Air Force Wants Better Infrared Technology—Here’s Why

Next-generation Overhead Persistent Infrared includes several key upgrades over the existing Space-Based Infrared Satellites.


Here's What You Need To Know: The Defense Department is moving quickly to deploy this new missile detection technology given the seriousness of the growing Chinese missile threat.

The Defense Department is accelerating a new program intended to bring an entirely new dimension to missile warning operations, by engineering a new Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) detection system intended to both identify the heat signature generated by the launch of an enemy missile as well as establish a flight track of a threat as it transits through space. 


Developers say next-generation OPIR includes several key upgrades over the existing Space-Based Infrared Satellites (SBIRS). First, OPIR 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, its 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 includes modern cybersecurity plus significant other measures for added resiliency and survivability against potential adversary space capabilities. 

It is unsurprising that the Defense Department is moving quickly to deploy this new missile detection technology given the seriousness of the growing Chinese missile threat. China has new weapons, and more of them are capable of reaching the United States

“Commercial satellite imagery discovered what is accepted to be nuclear missile fields in Western China. Each has nearly 120 ICBM silos,” Admiral Charles Richard, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command, said at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama. 

The challenge of organizing or distilling information while networking, pooling or aggregating vast volumes of information has inspired Lockheed Martin’s OPIR to connect with Raytheon Intelligence & Space and focus on an innovative approach called the 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 decisionmakers. This process will be substantially faster, more streamlined and comprehensive when networked with the merging OPIR system. 

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 op-ed published by 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 technology 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 analysis, 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 paper 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,” according to the authors of the op-ed, Jeffrey Harris and Gilbert Siegert.

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 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 fact, the Air Force has fast-tracked its efforts to obtain OPIR using something called 804 funding to create a compressed schedule that preserves quality yet expedites development to meet a pressing need. 

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.

This piece first appeared earlier and is being reprinted due to reader interest.

Image: Flickr.