Athene - missile early-warning system

The existing situation

International proliferation and arming activities are resulting in a heighted risk of attack by ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. In addition to the well known major powers, more and more countries with instable structures led by regimes whose actions are difficult to predict must be monitored.

During the Cold War, counteractivities primarily comprised missile defense. During that era, the major powers of the time held large arsenals of operational ballistic missiles. This is no longer the case for a series of countries which are causing concern as a result of missile arming activities. They are in the throes of a development process which may take years to complete.

Accordingly, at this stage it is opportune not to confine a possible counter-strategy to an armed conflict but to engage in political and diplomatic activities on the basis of information which can be obtained as quickly as possible. This provides a realistic view of potential threats, allowing their existence or non-existence to be documented.

At this same time, it is necessary to develop technical approaches which are financially viable from the outset.

Athene - the new German approach

OHB-System AG has designed a solution based on the requirements of the current situation. The Athene system is able to track missile flights during the combustion phase and even after they have been extinguished. Although it does not achieve global coverage, it is targeted at all countries expected to be engaging in potentially dangerous missile proliferation over future decades. Thus, for example, the fact that it is no longer necessary to monitor Russian territory today can be seen as an advantage given that the possibility of disruptions in international political relations can be ruled out.

Athene comprises an equatorial rink of satellites in a low earth orbit (LEO). Unlike other LEO systems, only a maximum of 10 satellites are required. In this array, the satellites make use of the ability to detect the heat given off by a missile against the cold backdrop of space. This addresses the main problem of satellite-based early detection, namely the unambiguous identification of a missile with a low error rate against the bright background radiation of the earth at a distance of around 40,000 km. In this way, it is possible to eradicate further cost drivers. In addition to the relatively straightforward requirements with respect to the sensory system, the overall communication link can also be simplified. The low orbit also means that small satellites and launch vehicles can be used, while the satellites themselves can be based on the proven SAR-Lupe platform. The estimated cost of a system of such capabilities is a remarkably low EUR 500 million or so.

Benefits for Germany/Europe

The aim is for Germany/Europe to utilize the theoretical lead gained with Athene. In this way, it would have its own capacity for detecting the existence or non-existence of potentially dangerous missile developments months or even years in advance,  thus providing greater scope for diplomatic action. In an alliance, Athene would open up new possibilities which no other partner has at the moment. At the same time, synergistic benefits from related areas could also be harnessed. Looking forward, military and civilian experts consider a space monitoring system to have great significance in national defense. Athene could monitor and catalog the entire LEO region with a time delay of around 20 minutes.