Space Assets Critical to Defeat Hypersonic Threats

Emerging Technology Horizons: Critical Space Assets to Defeat Hypersonic Threats


By Samantha Beu

Photo by Northrop Grumman

Threats that cannot be seen cannot be easily defeated – and if that threat is moving at Mach 5, there are only minutes left to make a decision.

Competitors already have operational hypersonic missiles – which were demonstrated during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s announced launch of a hypersonic glider off the Taiwan Strait – making the ability to detect and defeating these weapons a top priority for the Department of Defense. Fortunately, efforts are underway to achieve this.

The Space Development Agency recently announced awards to L3Harris Technologies and Northrop Grumman to provide 28 infrared tracking satellites for a constellation called Tranche 1 Tracking Layer. This layer, designed for early missile warning and missile defense, is part of the larger national defense space architecture that will provide sensing and data transport capability with a proliferating constellation of low Earth orbit satellites.

Proliferation is the key; an architecture of hundreds or even thousands of small satellites orbiting at altitudes below 2,000 kilometers will provide better resilience against incoming threats. Simply put, by increasing the number of targets, an opponent’s chances of success against the entire network will be significantly reduced.

The agency also made a compelling case that a mesh network in low orbit is more cost-effective and easier to provide and replace than current defense assets operating in higher orbits. Low Earth orbit offers further advantages for observing from space, as the closer proximity to Earth provides higher resolution imagery for remote sensing.

Each slice of the satellites will be delivered in two-year cycles, building on the capabilities of the previous iteration. The tranche 1 satellites are scheduled for launch in fiscal year 2024 and will be equipped with four inter-satellite optical links to enable high-speed communication and data exchange via point-to-point optical beams. These cross-links will allow the satellites to locate and track each other, forming a highly secure space communication network.

Advances in infrared sensor technology championed by the agency also promise improved resolution imaging. As noted in a June report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Boost-Phase Missile Defense” by Ian Williams, Masao Dahlgren, Thomas G. Roberts, and Tom Karako, multiband/multi-megapixel focal plane arrays can be used to develop high resolution or wide field of view infrared cameras. With their increased sensitivity, these sensors can improve missile detection and reduce tracking delays.

If deployed in sufficient numbers, SDA’s satellites will provide persistent coverage and improve missile warning, tracking and tracking data – exactly what is needed for hypersonic defense.

“The tracking layer addresses a very specific warfighter problem, which is next-generation advanced missiles. So we’re going to contribute to hypersonic combat,” Frank Turner, Technical Director of SDA, said in the “Constellations” podcast produced by Kratos Defense.

“We will help warn, track and defeat the advanced missiles our adversaries develop and deploy that will completely change the battlefield of the 21st century,” Turner added.

Other agencies answer the call. Space Force’s next-generation airborne persistent infrared program will deploy five satellites to multiple orbits to provide enhanced missile warning. Lockheed Martin will deliver three geosynchronous satellites to Earth orbit and has selected Raytheon Technologies to produce sensor payloads, with launch expected in fiscal year 2025. Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman has partnered with Ball Aerospace to develop two satellites in polar orbit, with a first launch scheduled for 2028.

The Missile Defense Agency, in conjunction with the Space Force, will begin putting the hypersonic ballistic tracking space sensor demonstrators into orbit next year. It will use a medium field of view capability to provide even greater sensitivity and accuracy once a launch is detected.

The Missile Defense Agency is considering the inclusion of cross-links on future iterations of the system to communicate with Space Development Agency satellites. This is a necessary capability to deal with the looming hypersonic threat, according to a June Government Accountability Office report, “Missile Defense: Better Oversight and Coordination Needed for Counter-Hypersonic Development.”

The Defense Department’s fiscal year 2023 budget request includes $24.7 billion for defeat and missile defense, outlined as part of the National Integrated Deterrence Strategy. Of this amount, $4.7 billion is earmarked for space-based missile warning and tracking architectures. Included are the new Space Force Resilient Missile Warning Missile Tracking System – consisting of the Space Development Agency’s tracking layer and a medium Earth orbit constellation developed by Space Systems Command – as well as the Next Generation Airborne Persistent Infrared program, which succeeds the current Space Infrared system and will provide enhanced early warning and battlespace awareness capabilities.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees approved the request largely unchanged, but expressed the need for additional information on expected costs, capabilities and potential risks. The Senate also wisely recommended additional funding to expand the Space Development Agency’s missile tracking program and to provide four additional launches for Tranche 1.

Space assets play an essential role in national defense, in particular to counter the ever-increasing threat of future high-speed weapons. The persistent and resilient integrated spatial sensor network being built today is an essential first step in responding to and countering a very serious challenge. The Space Development Agency and its partners must be allowed to continue on this path while others develop the means to stop these missiles once they are detected.

Samantha Beu is a research associate at the NDIA’s Institute for Emerging Technologies.

Topics: Missile Defense, Space

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