Theater Ballistic Missile Warning

Oct. 19, 2016

Theater Ballistic Missile proliferation is becoming an ever-increasing problem in the world in the 21st Century. Many nations possess theater ballistic missiles and some have made this technology available for purchase. Today, proliferation poses a significant threat to U.S. field commanders in overseas locations and this threat will continue to grow in the future.

One of the primary missions of U.S. Strategic Command is to provide space-based theater ballistic missile warning to U.S. forces worldwide. This warning provides the troops in the field the opportunity to defend themselves or take the necessary precautions in the event of a missile threat. Those precautions could include intercepting the missile when combined with the current and future theater missile defense systems and the evacuation of buildings in the threatened area. The command performs this mission with a variety of ground-based and space-based systems as part of the Theater Event System.

The Theater Event System consists of the Defense Support Program satellite constellation, Space Based Infrared System, Joint Tactical Ground Stations, and Tactical Detection and Reporting System. The data from these sources is disseminated worldwide via the Integrated Broadcast Service.

A brief description of key Theater Event Systems and sensors follows:

  • Defense Support Program satellites use an infrared sensor to detect heat from missile or booster plumes against the relatively cool background of the Earth's surface. These satellites have provided uninterrupted warning since the early 1970s when they were first launched into a 22,000-mile geosynchronous orbit. These satellites were designed to detect strategic ballistic missiles in the early stage of launch of their flights. However, during Desert Storm, prior to the start of the air campaign, the detection software was upgraded and refined to detect short-range theater ballistic missiles such as the SCUD missile.
  • The follow-on to the Defense Support Program satellites, the Space Based Infrared System, is presently being developed from the ground up to detect theater ballistic missiles. The Air Force Space Based Infrared Systems (commonly known as SBIRS) Mission Control Station (MCS) at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo. , represents a transformational step in the evolution of the nation's space-based infrared systems. The MCS centralizes global command, control, and communications for strategic and tactical warning into a single modern peacetime facility. Emerging from a heritage of over 30 years of early warning and the lessons of the 1991 war with Iraq, the consolidated facility provides warfighters with timely, unambiguous missile warning reports. The SBIRS MCS was declared operational in December 2001. SBIRS consists of three individual space constellations and an evolving ground element: the Defense Support Program, SBIRS High, and the Space Tracking and Surveillance System. These systems are independent yet complement each other by providing global infrared coverage. The MCS operates the Defense Support Program today and will have the capability to operate SBIRS High and the Space Tracking and Surveillance System from the consolidated location in the future. Following the 1991 Gulf War, a need was recognized to deliver to the theater commanders a single, unambiguous report on missile activity in their area. While DSP proved very effective, the fact remained that it had been designed for strategic missile warning. In response, the program office launched Talon Shield Phase 1, which quickly fielded an operational system known as Attack and Launch Early Reporting to Theater (ALERT) in March 1995. ALERT was a high-confidence operational system that provided assured theater missile warning to warfighters worldwide. ALERT was deactivated in September of 2002 and the MCS team now performs the ALERT mission.
  • Joint Tactical Ground Stations is a transportable/mobile, in-theater element of the Theater Event System that provides theater commanders with a capability to process data and immediately send a warning of a theater ballistic missile launch. The system processes data (multiple source) from Defense Support Program satellites and ties directly to theater communications systems to send theater ballistic missile position information to support early warning, targeting, and cueing requirements. Tactical Detection and Reporting System is a system based on the combined ability of a variety of space-based assets to provide warning data. These systems and sensors, working in harmony and concert with each other, provide the world's most sophisticated early warning system for the joint military community to support the warfighter on land, sea, and in the air.

Current as of December 2011