The US Space Force (USSF) is likely to launch its fifth ballistic missile early-warning satellite next month. Arch-rival Russia had launched its fourth satellite with similar capability last year.
The geosynchronous satellite, part of the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), has recently been delivered to the USSF base in Florida.
By orbiting the Earth in highly elliptical rounds and communicating with stationary ground systems, the SBIRS satellites provide 24/7 infrared surveillance of missile activity throughout the world.
The US military claims SBIRS has proved its mettle in the wake of a series of missile attacks by Iran on the US and allied forces in Iraq in January 2020. According to the US Space Force, SBRIRS apparently saved lives by providing a vital warning against more attacks.
The US-Russia Space Race
The arrival of the fifth satellite shows how the US is competing for an edge over its rivals, Russia and China, when it comes to space defense.
The space race between Washington and Moscow had begun during the Cold War period when both nations had launched their respective space-based missile early warning systems.
The Soviets responded to the American Defense Support Program (DPS) with its Oko program in the 1970s. Both Russia and the US started upgrading to the next generation systems around the turn of the century.
— United States Space Force (@SpaceForceDoD) August 9, 2017
In December 2019, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksei Krivoruchko called the Russian Kupol/ EKS (Integrated Cosmos System) “as good as” SBIRS. But in quantity and quality, the US seems to be a step ahead, as it had been throughout the Cold War.
The Kupol integrated space system has been set up to track launches of ballistic missiles and space rockets from the territory of the United States, according to Russian news agency TASS.
EKS is a developing system that could be on par with SBIRS after final installations. On the other hand, SBIRS is in its final form; soon to be replaced by Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR).
According to the Space Review, it is likely that EKS is using “20th-century vidicon technology rather than the proclaimed infrared sensors of a new generation.” Russia had launched its fourth missile warning satellite, Tundra, in May last year.
China still has a long way to go before it can build its indigenous warning system which can match that of the West. According to the state-owned Global Times, “Russia is helping China to build a missile attack warning system that could significantly increase China’s defense capabilities.
This system is modeled on the Russian satellites and Voronezh ground-based radar stations.
India had launched Project NETRA in September 2019. The $56-million Network for Space Object Tracking and Analysis (NETRA) has both civil and military applications. Launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), NETRA comprises radars, telescopes, data processing units, and a control center.
It is intended to protect India’s space assets by providing early warning against missiles from hostile nations or other objects.