Although North Korea has been willing to engage in diplomatic talks with their neighboring South Korea regarding their participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics, delegates from Kim Jong Un’s regime have been clear that they are unwilling to even discuss Kim’s nuclear pursuits, nor do they appear willing to engage with the international community at large. While some look to this Olympic based diplomacy with justifiable optimism, the United States and a number of other nations around the world are continuing with defensive business as usual, in case Kim’s recent turn toward diplomacy is short-lived.
Among those preparations are ongoing talks between 20 concerned nations, held in Vancouver and co-hosted by U.S. and Canadian officials. These talks are aimed at establishing ways to maximize the effectiveness of sanctions already levied by the United Nations. Another, broader measure, is the expected launch of a new advanced missile warning satellite, set to depart from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Thursday.
The SBIRS GEO Flight-4 missile warning satellite will join three others already in orbit, and is a part of a larger satellite constellation expected to include at least two more satellites in the coming years. The impending launch comes less than a year after SBIRS GEO Flight-3 went operational and began transmitting its first images to defense officials. These two additions join Flights 1 and 2, which have been in orbit since 2013.
This missile-identifying constellation of satellites uses a combination of scanning and “staring” infrared surveillance sensors that collect data continuously, immediately identifying signs of a ballistic missile launch and providing the United States with advanced warning of what could be an offensive strike. The satellites are rumored to harbor other intelligence gathering capabilities, but neither Lockheed, nor the U.S. government, has been forthcoming with exactly what those capabilities may be. It stands to reason that these observation-based assets could be used for a number of applications, particularly thanks to their powerful infrared sensors.
“SBIRS has powerful overhead sensors that provide vast amounts of data. At the SBIRS Mission Control Station, Overhead Persistent Infrared Battlespace Awareness Center at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, this data is being used for operational applications across areas like battlespace awareness, intelligence and 24/7 tactical alerts.” Lockheed explains on their website.
Once completed, the constellation of missile launch identifying satellites will include four geostationary satellites, 2 Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites on a much higher, elliptical orbit, two replenishment satellites and sensors, and a number of fixed and mobile ground stations to receive and analyze the data.
These satellites, built by Lockheed Martin, carry a total price tag $13.6 billion, including the cost of training ground support personnel. Each of the satellites themselves are said to cost some $1.7 billion a piece. Budget allocation for the SBIRS program is now ramping up as it nears completion, with the Pentagon requesting $1.3 billion for the program in 2018; a sharp increase from the $862 million allocated in fiscal year 2017.
The GEO 5 and 6 satellites were authorized to begin what Lockheed calls the “manufacturing and integration phase” following a “critical design review” conducted by the U.S. Air Force this past September.
Images courtesy of Lockheed Martin