Missile-detection system strikes gold

The Air Force last month approved a new ground control station that is the first piece of a new system designed to improve its ability to detect and track missile launches around the world.

The mission control station (MCS) is the first phase of the Air Force's Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), which will combine space- and ground-based systems to detect launches and determine where missiles will strike, serving users in a battle theater as well as "strategic" users always on the watch for missile strikes.

The existing ground control system, part of the Defense Support Program, split the work of processing data across three ground control stations. MCS combines the processing into a single system and uses more up-to-date and powerful computer systems for processing satellite data.

"This consolidated site operates with the latest missile warning software, which provides a significant increase in quality of launch point and impact point prediction of hostile threats, especially to strategic users," said Col. Mark Borkowski, SBIRS program director. "In addition, the consolidated site reduces manpower requirements by 58 percent, as well as reducing [operations and maintenance] costs by up to 25 percent." The new ground station is housed at Buckley Air Force Base, Aurora, Colo., and operated by the 2nd Space Warning Squadron. The station provides additional capabilities to support the operators, including "stereo processing," which can process information from multiple satellites faster and more accurately than the previous system and deliver that data to senior military and civilian personnel, said Les Nelson, SBIRS Increment 1 project manager for Lockheed Martin Corp.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems jointly developed MCS with Northrop Grumman Space Systems.

MCS' performance is measured by its accuracy in determining the launch point, predicted impact point, estimated time of launch and other specifics about the nature of the threat, Borkowski said.

MCS replaces a ground system that used an IBM Corp. mainframe to process data. The new system uses 17 SGI Origin 2000 servers and 42 workstations, including SGI Octane, O2 and Onyx systems, which provide a much more powerful data-processing capability, and a Microsoft Corp. Windows-like graphical user interface that is much more user-friendly, Nelson said.

The companies trained MCS users for about four months to reach "crew qualification level," Nelson said.

Dane Coyer, vice president of systems processing and applications for the Northrop Grumman Space Systems division, said the Northrop team's specialty on MCS was in "mission data processing," or transforming the satellite data into useful information for the Air Force.

"The satellites detect infrared heat signatures and send data down where it is characterized, manipulated and pro.cessed into useful information for the user community, like what types of missiles" were launched, Coyer said.

The Air Force determined MCS met the requirements for initial operational capability (IOC) Dec. 21, 2001.

Coyer likened the completion of the first increment to the end of the first act in a three-act play, because the new MCS "sets the stage for all of the future work that's going to happen with SBIRS."

Once the third and final phase of SBIRS is complete at the end of the decade, the system will make it possible to detect missiles that are 10 times dimmer than those detected today, according to Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

SBIRS also will improve the Air Force's ability to detect where a missile is launched 25 times better than today and to predict the strike point 200 times better, Nelson said.

The two companies will also install a backup control station at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo., which should be operational in fiscal 2005.

Baker Spring, a research fellow in national security policies at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said he was glad to learn of the IOC declaration and was even more impressed that the new station is being used with the current Defense Support Program, while the SBIRS program continues to progress.

However, Spring added that he feels management problems with the third increment are hindering the program's progress and that the entire system could be delivered earlier and for less money if it was managed better.

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Zeroing in

The mission control station, developed jointly by Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Northrop Grumman Space Systems, is the first element of the Air Force Space-Based Infrared System.

Increment 1: Updates the technology used to process satellite data and consolidates ground control from three systems into one.

Increment 2: Adds four satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit and two sensors in highly elliptical orbit; replaces old satellites. Increment 3: Adds 20 to 30 satellites in low Earth orbit to provide midcourse missile tracking.

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