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February 8, 2008— It’s called Third Generation Infrared Surveillance and it’s known in Pentagon short-speak as “3GIRS.” And it’s the Air Force’s new initiative to mature the next generation of highly sophisticated sensors to watch the skies from thousands of miles above the Earth in future decades and warn of missile launches.

Unveiled on Feb. 4 as part of USAF’s Fiscal 2009 budget proposal, 3GIRS could lead one day to small-sized, yet extremely capable staring, wide-field-of-view arrays that replace the surveillance capabilities provided by Space Based Infrared System satellites. Indeed, if the Air Force’s nascent plans unfold as currently laid out, the first 3GIRS satellite could be delivered by industry in 2016, according to the service’s newly issued budget documents.

The 3GIRS isn’t a totally new program, per say, but rather is the evolution of the Alternative Infrared Satellite System initiative, the previous option that the Air Force was pursuing as a would-be SBIRS successor. It came about as a result of the changes and decisions regarding SBIRS and AIRSS that have occurred since the start of 2007.

“We’re really looking at it as a business case,” an Air Force official said of 3GIRS on Feb. 1 while briefing reporters on the space portions of USAF’s 2009 spending proposal. “We don’t have a significant change in requirements” from SBIRS.

“Unlike the communication world, or GPS, where the users are saying, ‘We’ve got more demands,’ ” he continued, “we’ve got a fairly level forecast for the kind of ISR demands that are made of [an early warning] system.”

In fact, with the advances already being made in focal-plane-array technology, such as the miniaturization of components and much higher pixel resolutions, there is the opportunity for great cost savings, this Air Force official said.

“In round numbers, our cost models are telling us it might be half or less the SBIRS recurrent cost,” he said.

The Air Force hatched AIRSS in 2005 at the time when SBIRS costs had ballooned due to technical challenges. The cost increases triggered a Congressionally mandated review out of which OSD restructured the SBIRS program, reducing the number of dedicated SBIRS satellites that would be procured from five to perhaps three.

AIRSS was created to mature newer IR technologies in parallel to SBIRS work so that the Air Force could have the option of going with less SBIRS satellites and building newer AIRSS spacecraft without the danger of an early warning gap for the nation. The goal was to have an AIRSS satellite around 2015.

But then in July 2007, OSD allowed the Air Force to procure a third SBIRS satellite and retain an option for a fourth.

As a result, there was no longer the need for the AIRSS program in its original form. But there was still a need for a SBIRS follow on.

“So we took the work that had been going on at the focal plane array level ... and said that will be the foundation for our third-generation system,” a second Air Force official said at the same briefing. “The first generation was [the Defense Support Program], the second generation was SBIRS, and this will be the third generation.

“We laid in a profile,” he continued, “for a system that would no longer be an alternative to a relatively near-term third geosynchronous spacecraft, but would be the successor system for life after SBIRS.”

The goal now with 3GIRS is to mature the critical WFOV technologies so that the Air Force could opt for 3GIRS instead of procuring the fourth SBIRS satellite. The date of this decision point is anticipated in Fiscal 2010, USAF said in response to query. The first SBIRS satellite is scheduled for launch in 2009. The second is in build and the Air Force would like to buy the third in Fiscal 2009.

The Air Force has requested $149 million for 3GIRS in Fiscal 2009. Roughly an equal amount, $148 million, is projected for Fiscal 2010, followed in the three subsequent fiscal years by requests for $158 million, $347 million, and $347 million, respectively.

Because of the miniaturization of the focal plane arrays, it may be possible to host them on other satellites rather than employing dedicated spacecraft.

“There’s a neat set of choices to decouple the sensor from the ride provider that should give us the opportunity for a much more economical constellation to sustain and perhaps some more flexible opportunities to deploy it,” the first official said. “So we’re really looking at this as a return on investment.”

One of the looming challenges associated with 3GIRS is to figure out how the massive amounts of data that the high-resolution sensors will produce will be piped to users on the ground, especially those on the move.

“Our problem, really, is ... how do we prevent ourselves from getting choked on the downlinked data? That’s the tough part,” said the second official. “If I have a large downlink, a large pipe going to the ground, that tends to mean large antennas on the ground. You’re not real mobile, you’re not real transportable that way.”