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Digital Battlespace

Unified approach motivates OPIR planning

17th May 2021 - 14:00 GMT | by Jason Sherman in New York

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The US military has adopted a new space architecture. (Image: CSIS)

New OPIR strategy relies on prototyping and experimentation to shape future investments.

The US military has adopted a new space architecture that aims to harmonise Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) requirements for strategic and tactical missile warning, missile defence and battlespace awareness missions — a strategy that spans three agencies and tens of billions of dollars in planned spending.

The Overhead Persistent Infrared Enterprise Architecture Strategy, provided by the Pentagon to Congress in late December 2020, aims to address concerns by lawmakers about a lack of consensus inside the US military over an agreed and affordable integrated enterprise space architecture.

‘Based on years of OPIR analysis, the Department is planning a more affordable, effective, and resilient tracking solution,’ the DoD notes in its nine-page, non-public document. 

‘That solution includes a family-of-systems approach that will utilise diversified Missile Warning and Missile Defense OPIR architecture layers to enable the tracking of advanced missile targets and diversify critical warning functions.’

Analysis from the DoD has determined that sensitivity for tracking maneouvring payloads and dim boosting upper stages can be achieved with smaller, lower-cost networked node sensors positioned close to Earth in either low (LEO) or medium orbits.

In the meantime, the US military will continue to place larger and more focused sensors in higher geosynchronous and highly elliptical orbits for traditional missile defence and missile warning missions.

In addition to the US intelligence community, there are three main customers for OPIR systems: the USAF Space and Missile System Center, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and the relatively new Space Development Agency (SDA).

The new OPIR enterprise strategy is based around a three-part acquisition strategy.

The first step is the USAF Next Generation OPIR Block 0 as a follow-on to the current Space Based Infrared System. OPIR Block 0 will consist of three geosynchronous satellites from Lockheed Martin Space, plus two polar satellites being developed by Northrop Grumman, for coverage of highly elliptical orbit satellites with launches beginning in 2025.

The second leg of the strategy calls for deployment (beginning in 2021) of a non-proprietary mission ground system that builds on legacy Joint OPIR Ground capabilities which integrate processing and dissemination services across multiple agencies.

The third element calls for rapid development, prototyping and demonstration of new capabilities between 2021 and 2024, in a series of efforts that encompass four main projects. 

One is the DARPA Blackjack programme; experiments in this wide field-of-view (FOV) project are planned in FY2021 and FY2022 to inform future investment decisions regarding sensor performance and processing.

In another project, the SDA is leading a medium FOV experiment in FY2021 that will launch a LEO payload with experimental sensors to similarly inform future investment decisions.

Third is a planned Tranche 0 project by the SDA, consisting of eight wide FOV tracking satellites and 20 transport satellites in 2022. These sensors will focus on custody of advanced missile targets.

The fourth OPIR experimental project is the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor — a key step in the US military’s effort to field a counter-hypersonic capability within this decade.

In January, MDA selected Northrop Grumman and L3Harris Technologies to develop a next-generation, orbiting, IR system to track ultrafast and manoeuvring threats from launch to impact. Planned prototypes are scheduled to launch in 2023.

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