Islamic State Positions Tracked by U.S. Satellites as a BonusBy
Added use found for satellites made to detect nuclear launches
Lockheed-Northrop system is working after delays, overruns
U.S. early warning satellites and sensors designed primarily to detect the launch of missiles carrying nuclear warheads are providing daily streams of intelligence on Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria, according to defense officials.
The system, using a satellite built by Lockheed Martin Corp. and equipped with sensors from Northrop Grumman Corp., detects heat, or infrared signatures. Combined with electronic and signals intelligence and video gathered by reconnaissance drones and aircraft, the satellites are helping to compile a running portrait of Islamic State ground positions.
“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,” Air Force Colonel John Dorrian, the Pentagon’s top spokesman in Iraq, said in an e-mail. The capability “enables us to ascertain where kinetic events like explosions are happening because the technology can track heat signatures with great fidelity,” he said.
The satellites and sensors “would be capable of detecting any sufficiently intense explosions in ISIL-held territory,” Jeff Richelson, author of “The U.S. Intelligence Community,” said in an e-mail, using an acronym for the terrorist group.
Disclosure of the satellites’ use illustrates the full-court press that the Pentagon, Air Force and intelligence agencies are exerting to gain information on Islamic State operations. U.S. and coalition intelligence drones and reconnaissance aircraft have flown about 18,000 sorties against Islamic State since August 2014. That’s in addition to new, highly classified offensive cyber operations.
It’s a vindication for what was until recently considered one of the Pentagon’s most troubled programs. The first of two satellites now in orbit was launched in May 2011 after years of delays and cost overruns. That was almost nine years after it was originally planned.
The program, which started in 1995, has more than quadrupled in cost to a projected $17 billion for as many as six satellites from an early estimate of $4.1 billion, according to Defense Department figures.
“The program was hampered by poor government oversight of the contractor, unanticipated technical complexities and rework,” Cristina Chaplain, a director with the U.S. Government Accountability Office who follows military space programs, said in an e-mail. “Some problems were rooted in the ambitious nature of the program and the fact that it was attempting to satisfy the needs of many users.”
She said it’s “not a surprise that the satellites are now being used for a variety of missions beyond missile warning” because Defense Department “satellites often exceed expectations once in orbit. But it’s a challenge to build highly capable” ones.
One year before taking command of the Air Force’s 460th Space Wing, which oversees SBIRS operations, Colonel David Miller was a special U.S. adviser in Iraq assigned to the prime minister’s office. But he was well aware of the satellite system’s capability.
“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,” Miller said in an interview. Miller took over the wing based at Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado in August.
Miller agreed to talk in general about the satellite system’s mission to support commanders worldwide, including Europe and the Pacific. He declined to say whether SBIRS surveillance has increased to support preparations for an Iraqi military offensive to retake the city of Mosul from Islamic State.
Whatever General Joseph Votel, the head of Central Command who’s leading the effort in Iraq and Syria, “wants us to do, we will do our damnedest to carry it out,” Miller said. Iran, which has an active and expanding ballistic missile program, also falls under Votel’s command.
“These SBIRS sensors are the most capable infrared” type “that we have ever produced,” Miller said.
While the space-based system was developed for tracking intercontinental ballistic missiles, it has “proven capable of tracking much smaller heat signatures” Dorrian said.
In addition, advances in computing power “have enabled the Air Force to begin processing and using data in ways never really considered when” technology first became available for missile warning systems in the 1970’s, he said.