The prospect of long-range hypersonic attacks, new precision-guidance ballistic missiles and even next-generation ICBMs has inspired the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency to pursue new space-based sensors to track and destroy faster, more lethal incoming missile attacks traveling beyond the earth’s atmosphere.
The initiative is based on the concept that faster, more precise enemy attacks, especially those traveling through space, will need a new-generation of space-integrated sensors and faster, more precise interceptors.
"You can't shoot what you don't see. Providing that sight are sensors and radars aboard ships, on the ground and in space.” Missile Defense Agency director Vice Adm. Jon Hill said at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Washington D.C., according to a Pentagon report.
For instance, satellite-integrated sensors will enable U.S. defenses to help develop a “continuous track” on approaching threats without needing to rely more purely on segmented radar fields of view. This can be made possible by two clear things, including a larger number of satellites and space-based sensors themselves.
There is precedent for this kind of work, given the Air Force’s current Overhead Persistent Infrared sensor program designed as a new, longer-range higher resolution generation of enemy missile launch detection to extend beyond the current SIBR (Space-Based Infrared).
These sensors can detect the heat signature of an enemy missile launch and quickly send information to human command and control centers. This kind of technology, it could easily be said, might begin to create the technical foundation for a new generation of satellite sensors better able to follow a “track” on an approaching missile.
Instead of needing distinct or otherwise segmented radar fields, a single space-based sensor network can identify and stay with an enemy weapon’s trajectory. This, according to senior Pentagon and industry weapons developers, will be necessary to stop faster, more lethal attacks such as those anticipated by hypersonic weapons attack.
Engineering technologies able to establish that “continuous track” is exactly what some of the Pentagon’s industry partners are doing to get in front of the curve when it comes to defending against hypersonics. For example, Booz Allen Hamilton is among those firms developing technology to establish that “continuous track.”
Former Missile Defense Agency director Ret. Lt. Gen. Trey Obering, now a Booz Allen executive, explains that one way to establish that “continuous track” is by engineering new numbers of networked, lower-flying, faster satellites called Very Low Earth Orbit (vLEO).
These satellites, by virtue of being networked and operating in much larger numbers, can ensure that approaching enemy weapons are not “lost” temporarily as they transition from one coverage area to another. vLEO satellites are faster and lower altitude than current satellite systems, enabling a closer purview as well as the technical ability to establish a more precise sensor and targeting track.
Furthermore, they are being engineered for fast networking to share information quickly and in real-time, something is considered crucial given that hypersonic attacks through space can travel at five times the speed of sound.
Another avenue of possible defense might literally be satellite-mounted weapons, such as lasers, Obering has told The National Interest. Lasers operate in space with much lower risk of beam attenuation when compared with laser weapons fired within the earth’s atmosphere.
Essentially, space is well suited for laser weapons. Navy ships are already exploring the kinds of laser “power scaling” necessary to employ lasers for various kinds of long-range missile defense applications. It is quite conceivable that the Pentagon will soon be engineering satellite mounted weapons, along with of course more advanced sensors.
Kris Osborn is defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.