America's Space Sentinels: The History of the DSP and SBIRS Satellite Systems

  • Published

America's Space Sentinels: The History of the DSP and SBIRS Satellite Systems by Jeffrey T. Richelson. University Press of Kansas, 2012, 384 pp.

This edition of Dr. Jeffrey T. Richelson’s America’s Space Sentinels contains a much-welcomed update to his 1999 groundbreaking first edition of the history of the United States’ infrared (IR) early warning satellite programs. The author ably attempts to corral the facts, assumptions, and mythos behind the Defense Support Program (DSP) and its follow-on, the space-based infrared system (SBIRS). A well-recognized name within academic circles for his expertise in national security and intelligence community issues, Dr. Richelson summarizes the crux of the issue, first posited by national security planners in the 1950s: “Can heat plumes from intercontinental ballistic missiles be viewed from space?” The apparent thoroughness of the text takes the original question and expands on more complex issues that appeared in later decades (e.g., funding, range of viewing, and the effectiveness of IR-based early warning technology).

Through a variety of primary and secondary sources, Dr. Richelson traces the genesis of the IR-detection satellite program. From Joseph Knopow’s late-1940s conceptual design for a satellite equipped with an IR radiometer and telescope, Lockheed Missile Systems would create a subsystem to the WS-117L space-based reconnaissance effort (best known for the extremely successful Discoverer/CORONA reconnaissance satellite effort). Follow-on programs included Program 461 and the next-phase satellite, given the purposefully obscure moniker “Defense Support Program.” The operationalization of space-based IR early warning occurred in the 1970s, immediately fulfilling the requirements of strategic missile data for national security planners. As Dr. Richelson chronicles, so detailed and accurate was the data returned from DSP that other “gee-whiz” capabilities began to manifest themselves during the late 1970s and 1980s.

As with any wholly successful program, the addition of minor secondary tasks results in divergence from the system’s original purpose—a phenomenon dubbed “mission creep.” The most prevalent example of this mission creep for the DSP was creation of the attack and launch early reporting to theater (ALERT) during Operation Desert Storm. The DSP’s ability to pick up not only strategic missiles but also theater ballistic missiles opened a door of overwhelming possibilities for space-based IR collection. New mission requirements were codified and coalesced into SBIRS, the DSP’s successor program. Immature technology and ill-defined objectives for SBIRS caused two breaches of the Nunn-McCurdy Amendment (limiting the cost of weapons procurement) in 2001 and 2005, causing Congress to consider cancelling the program. However, cessation of the DSP program (ending at flight 23), forced SBIRS into a “cannot fail” situation.

Glaring errors and omissions plague a good number of Dr. Richelson’s books, mostly due to his use of secondary and tertiary sources along with heavily redacted primary sources. America’s Space Sentinels is no exception. Because of the sensitivity of this subject matter, early reports involving DSP and its associated organizations (i.e., Aerospace Defense Command, Air Force Space Command, the 5th Defense Space Communications Squadron) remain heavily redacted. This situation creates a problem for academic researchers trying to re-create an accurate history. In 2000, R. Cargill Hall, chief historian of the National Reconnaissance Office, published his unclassified manuscript Missile Defense Alarm: The Genesis of Space-Based Infrared Early Warning, which detailed the early days of the Missile Defense Alarm System (MIDAS) and Program 461. Richelson’s first edition did not include Hall’s research for obvious reasons; however, 12 years passed before release of the second edition, but again Richelson makes no mention of Hall’s findings. Flight data in Hall’s monograph does not quite match up with Dr. Richelson’s although readers should approach both with honest skepticism. The dates of satellite launches, for example, are off by one day, a discrepancy attributed to the use of Universal Coordinated Time (“ZULU”) versus Pacific Standard Time. Additionally, Dr. Richelson’s selection of sources for the “new” epilogue is a bit troubling in that he takes many articles from industry-standard newspapers such as Space News and the Washington Post, with a scattering of governmental reports or analyses (mostly from the Government Accountability Office.) The epilogue’s detailing of SBIRS seems less an academic synthesis of events than an afterthought of chronological accounting from open sources.

This systemic failure to update knowledge gained in the last 14 years is expertly illuminated by entries on pages 224 and 237 of America’s Space Sentinels. In part of the “new” epilogue, Dr. Richelson states clearly that “at the beginning of 2012, the DSP/SBIRS network consisted of . . . DSP Mobile Ground Terminals (MGTs) at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico” (p. 237). However earlier in the text (p. 224), he mentions that the DSP MGT mission equipment was transferred from New Mexico to the Colorado Air National Guard’s 137th Space Warning Squadron (SWS) in late 1995, a full four years before the first edition and 17 years before this second edition. A rapid search of the Internet for authoritative sources, such as the 137th SWS’s Air National Guard fact sheet, clearly states that the MGT trucks are no longer in New Mexico.

Regardless of sources, the information that Dr. Richelson has compiled for this book is amazing in its breadth and depth. With all of its identified errors, the text remains the only comprehensive book on these two critical national security satellite programs and will continue as a benchmark in the ever-increasing library of US space history books.

Maj Joseph T. Page II, USAF
Joint Space Operations Center
Vandenberg AFB, California

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."