Since the early 1970s, the Defense Support Program has been the backbone of the U.S. ballistic missile early warning system.
This once classified satellite first launched in 1970 providing strategic surveillance with an infrared capability to detect long-range ballistic missile launches.
The mission of the DSP satellite is to detect missile launches using its infrared telescope that recognizes heat against the Earth’s surface.
“In 1991, there were 12 foreign ballistic missile programs in the world,” Wagner said. “Today over three dozen countries openly acknowledge a ballistic missile program and we have seen the catastrophic effects when these countries use ballistic missiles against each other or even against their own people. These missiles are increasingly lethal and mobile with more reliable, accurate and effective guidance systems. Technology enabled smaller, faster, more accurate, more storable, and inherently more deployable missiles with longer ranges.”
During Operation Desert Storm, the growth of nations with tactical ballistic missile capability increased and DSP began to support troops in the Persian Gulf War. After detecting Iraqi Scud launches and providing timely warning to downrange users, DSP began to be used for tactical detection as well.
Scientists are currently in the process of developing methods to use the satellite as part of an early warning system for natural disasters like volcanic eruptions and forest fires.
The DSP constellation was first put in place to address the missile threat posed by the former Soviet Union.
“To understand and counter the threat of a surprise nuclear attack against the United States, we looked to air and then space because we truly needed global reach to see deep into the Soviet Union,” said Col. John Wagner, 460th Space Wing commander.
“This was at a time when Soviet missile power was in our faces daily – particularly after the launch of Sputnik.”
The early warning system took 15 minutes to provide warning of ballistic missile attack, so national priority was placed on the space-based system known as the Missile Defense Alarm System.
Source:: Air Force Space Command