PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
The list of life-changing products and technologies developed by or for the military that have also proven beneficial to the civilian sector – including GPS, microwaves, digital photography, cellular networks, duct tape, and even the internet – now includes Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) systems.
While the U.S. Air Force – Space and Missile Systems Center’s infrared “eye-in-the-sky” missile warning system might not seem like it could be the next GPS in terms of beyond-design civil use, need and innovative spin-off technologies could change what people think of when they hear the acronym “OPIR.”
Theory of evolution
The evolution of OPIR began in the 1960s when the missile defense alarm system (MIDAS) laid the foundation for how the U.S. would detect intercontinental ballistic missile launches from space. From there, MIDAS evolved into the defense support program (DSP) in the 1970s and eventually became the space-based infrared system (SBIRS) in the 2010s. This network of satellites is designed to meet the jointly defined requirements of the nation’s defense and intelligence communities in support of the missile early warning, missile defense, battlespace awareness and technical intelligence mission areas. OPIR provides persistent and resilient capabilities to detect, track and attribute missiles and rockets launched from anywhere on the globe.
Recently, the Air Force has been expanding the ways it can leverage OPIR data for non-military purposes to save lives, protect the environment, and reduce costs associated with certain natural disasters such as large wildfires and volcanic eruptions.
“As with many capabilities created to meet a particular military need, we learn through its use and technological evolutions other ways we can optimize and expand the utility of that system or device for military and, in some cases, civil applications,” said Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson, Air Force Space and Missiles Systems Center commander. “GPS is probably the most well-known example of this. Conceptualized in the 1960s as a way to provide satellite navigation to strategic bomber pilots, GPS has become one of the most relied-upon and life-changing technologies ever – and more uses are still being discovered by military and commercial users every year. I believe we are just beginning to unlock the possibilities of how OPIR can benefit the civil sector in more ways than national defense.”
Fighting fire with … data
Using OPIR data as a means to assist with fire-fighting and geologic activity prediction is not a new concept. A concerted effort to leverage OPIR data called the Hazard Support Program was successfully tested in the mid-1990s, but was shut down in 2001 due to lack of a civil agency to fund and lead it.
Since both the need and ability to use OPIR for more than strategic deterrence exist, SMC is bridging that gap by finding innovative ways of helping civil agency.
In November 2018, wildfires were ravaging California, and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) turned to a non-standard partner for help. The USAF provided crucial assistance using fused and releasable OPIR data, which allowed the USFS to “quickly identify four potentially dangerous flare-ups, new fires developing outside known fire boundaries, and react decisively,” according to the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.
The USFS presented AFSPC with an award of appreciation on Apr. 26 to recognize last year’s contributions and highlight the need for increased data sharing, stating that any information made available for front-line firefighters to make the best decisions possible is critical to saving lives and property.
“Last year we were in a really challenging situation. We lost 18,000 homes and more than 85 people were killed,” said Robert Baird, Director, Fire and Aviation Management, Pacific Southwest Region, USFS. “We have a tremendous challenge, and we appreciate all the efforts from the Air Force and Air Force Space Command and partners to make dual-use of these technologies.”
Now that the nature of the space domain is contested and potential adversaries have made it clear they desire to hold U.S. space capabilities at risk, the Air Force is increasing the resilience and survivability of its systems through improved training and technology, and OPIR is no exception.
As effective as current OPIR systems are, the Air Force is continuing the evolution from MIDAS to DSP to SBIRS to a Next-Gen OPIR constellation that will be even more resilient and capable of performing its primary function as a key part of the nation’s strategic deterrence portfolio, as well as other military and civil uses. Improving these capabilities not only makes the U.S. military more lethal and the nation safer, but it can protect lives, property and the environment as well.
“Of note, the Camp and Woolsey fires are estimated to have had a financial impact of more than $22 billion, and this dollar amount is nearly twice as much as the Air Force requested in the FY20 budget to fund the Next-Gen OPIR program, whose predecessors helped stop the fires and prevent the financial, environmental and human costs from being even higher,” said Col. Dennis Bythewood, SMC’s program executive office(r) for Space Development. “That’s not to say OPIR will prevent wildfires and associated costs; but looking at last year’s efforts as a prime example, improved OPIR infrastructure and data-sharing between agencies can certainly mitigate the risks and effects of wildfires in addition to the primary goal – improving national security.”
Maximizing taxpayer investment
The U.S. military has a long history of developing and using technology that has more utility for the American taxpayer than meets the eye. For example, portions of defense spending have been used for more than three decades to fund GPS operations (including manpower and infrastructure) and constellation sustainment (including satellite and launch procurement), which benefit more than four billion users worldwide every day.
“The bottom line is that the national return on investment (ROI) for systems like GPS and OPIR is much higher than some might think,” said Thompson. “The economic impact of GPS is estimated at more than $1.4 trillion since GPS was made available for commercial and civilian use in the 1980s. As we continue to refine our systems and partnerships with agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, we hope OPIR will provide even greater ROI for the taxpayer than it already has. It would be foolish not to maximize the potential of this system and increase its value to everyone.”