WASHINGTON: The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is investing in a new space sensor designed to track and ultimately stop hypersonic weapons traveling at more than five times the speed of sound, a modern weapon that promises to dramatically change the paradigm of future warfare.
As part of its 2022 budget submission, the US Missile Defense Agency has applied for funding to provide “hypersonic and ballistic-tracking space sensors” designed to “provide fire-control quality data to track weak ballistic and globally maneuverable hypersonic threats ,” said Vice Admiral Jon Hill, director of the Missile Defense Agency, according to Pentagon records.
Hill added that the new sensor program MDA is developing with the U.S. Space Force and the Space Development Agency will deploy its first two satellites in 2023. The new technology will eventually replace the existing Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS), which is now in orbit.
Interestingly, this emerging project is consistent with a broad emphasis throughout the MDA budget request to dedicate substantial funding to research and development. Of the entire $8.9 billion budget request for 2022, $7.2 billion, or 80 percent, is for research and development.
This prioritization of R&D is fully aligned with the Pentagon’s efforts to address the challenges facing current missile defenses. Not only are hypersonic weapons creating new problems for existing missile defense technology, but lasers are approaching space combat readiness, and potential competitors are massively expanding their ICBM arsenals. As part of this threat equation, adversaries may deploy newer types of advanced countermeasures, decoys, or anti-jamming techniques to ensure that an attacking ICBM can continue to strike its intended target.
The budget request also includes a request for funding to develop a taxi-phase interception capability for regional hypersonic defenses, a sensor-tracking system that may be similar to those being developed in space. As the target approaches, the hypersonic glide weapon uses its descent rate to hit the target and destroy or overwhelm them before they have any chance to react. Hill alluded to this interception capability, along with a specific requirement to fund the defense of Guam to support the Pacific theater.
Advanced space-based sensing to track hypersonic weapons could be one of several areas of hope for Pentagon weapons developers facing the challenge of how to defend against hypersonic weapons. Guided missiles traveling at hypersonic speeds may just arrive so fast that commanders on the ground simply cannot detect and respond to threats in time. Exacerbated in part by the fact that weapons traveling at hypersonic speeds may transition from one radar aperture to another so rapidly that a coordinated radar system may not be able to keep track of the target consistently for different geographic reasons this challenge. It is capable of being used with non-hypersonic weapons.
However, detecting hypersonic weapons from space at very fast speeds can dramatically change the equation and increase the likelihood that defenders will establish a more continuous trajectory of approaching weapons sufficient to coordinate some sort of defense or interception.
Chris Osborne is the National Interest’s defense editor. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a highly qualified specialist in the Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Division of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and air military expert on national television networks. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel and the History Channel as a guest military expert. He also holds an MA in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.