Critical Space Assets to Defeat Hypersonic Threats

Emerging technological horizons: Space assets are critical to defeating hypersonic threats


By Samantha Beu

Photo by Northrop Grumman

Unseen threats cannot be easily defeated – and if that threat is traveling at Mach 5, you have only minutes to make a decision.

While adversaries already have operational hypersonic missiles — demonstrated in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s reported launch of a hypersonic glider near the Taiwan Strait — the ability to detect and destroy such weapons is a top priority for the Defense Department. Fortunately, there are efforts for this.

The Space Agency recently announced awards to L3Harris Technologies and Northrop Grumman to deliver 28 infrared sensing satellites for the constellation, dubbed the Tranche 1 Tracking Layer. Designed for advanced missile warning and missile defense, this layer is part of a larger national defense space architecture that will provide sensing and data-carrying capabilities with an expanded constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit.

Spread is key; An architecture of hundreds or even thousands of small satellites orbiting at an altitude of less than 2,000 kilometers will provide better resilience against incoming threats. By simply increasing the number of targets, the opponent’s chances of success against the entire network will be significantly reduced.

The agency has also argued persuasively that a low-orbit network is more efficient and easier to deliver and replace than current defense assets operating in higher orbits. Low Earth orbit offers other advantages for space-based observation, as closer proximity to Earth provides higher-resolution imaging for remote sensing.

Each tranche of satellites will be delivered in two-year cycles based 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 optical intersatellite links to enable high-speed communications and data exchange via point-to-point optical beams. These cross-links will allow satellites to locate and track each other, creating a highly secure space-based communications network.

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

If deployed in sufficient numbers, the SDA’s satellites will provide continuous coverage and improve missile warning, data tracking, and tracking—exactly what hypersonic defenses need.

“The Tracking Layer goes after a very specific warfighter challenge, the next generation of advanced missiles. So we’re going to contribute to the hypersonic fight,” SDA CTO Frank Turner said on the Constellations podcast produced by Kratos Defence.

“We will contribute to the detection, tracking and defeat of advanced missiles developed and deployed by our adversaries that will completely transform the 21st century battlefield,” Turner added.

Other institutions are heeding the call. The Space Force’s Next Generation Ground Continuous Infrared program will place five satellites in multiple orbits to provide improved missile warning. Lockheed Martin has selected Raytheon Technologies to manufacture the sensor payloads that will deliver three geosynchronous Earth orbit satellites and are scheduled for launch in fiscal year 2025. Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman has teamed up with Ball Aerospace to develop two polar orbiting satellites. 2028.

The Missile Defense Agency, along with the Space Force, will begin orbiting Hypersonic Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor demonstrators next year. It will use the medium field-of-view capability to provide greater sensitivity and accuracy once a launch is detected.

The Missile Defense Agency is considering incorporating crosslinks into future iterations of the system to communicate with Space Agency satellites. It’s a necessary capability to meet the looming hypersonic threat, according to a June Government Accountability Office report, “Missile Defense: Better Control and Coordination Needed for Counter-Hypersonic Development.”

The Defense Department’s fiscal year 2023 budget request includes $24.7 billion for missile defense and defense, described as part of a national strategy for integrated deterrence. Of this, $4.7 billion is earmarked for space-based missile warning and tracking architecture. This includes the new Sustained Missile Warning Missile Tracking system, which consists of the Space Force’s Space Development Agency’s tracking layer and the mid-Earth orbit constellation developed by the Space Systems Command, as well as the Next Generation Surface Sustained Infrared program, which succeeds the current operation. It will provide a space-based infrared system and enhanced early warning and combat space awareness capabilities.

Both the House and Senate appropriations committees approved the request largely unchanged, but said more information was needed about expected costs, opportunities and potential risks. The Senate also wisely recommended additional funding to expand the Space Development Agency’s rocket tracking program and purchase four additional launches for Tranche 1.

Space assets play an important national defense role, especially in countering the growing threat of future high-velocity weapons. The sustainable and sustainable integrated space sensor network being built today is an important first step in meeting and countering a very serious challenge. The Space Agency and its partners should be allowed to continue on this path while others develop tools to intercept these missiles once they detect them.

Samantha Beu is a Research Associate at the NDIA’s Institute of Emerging Technologies.

Topics: Missile Defense, Space

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