The Pentagon is taking rapid new steps to defend against advanced hypersonic missile attacks in space through its ongoing efforts to engineer new Overhead Persistent Infrared early warning missile detection satellites.
“The satellites will be able to provide missile tracking data for hypersonic glide vehicles and the next generation of advanced missile threats,” Derek Tournear, the director of the Space Development Agency, said according to a Pentagon report.
Two companies were awarded OPIR development deals, L3Harris and SpaceX. The Pentagon reports says each company is expected to build four overhead persistent infrared imaging, or OPIR, satellites for the tracking layer of the NDSA. The satellites are slated to be ready by the end of fiscal year 2022.
“The transport satellites are the backbone of the National Defense Space Architecture,” Tournear said. “They take data from multiple tracking systems, fuse those, and are able to calculate a fire control solution, and then the transport satellites will be able to send those data down directly to a weapons platform via a tactical data link, or some other means.”
More sensitive and better networked missile-warning satellites are increasingly important to the Pentagon for obvious reasons, given that both Russia and China have been weaponizing space for quite some time. Both countries are known to have hypersonic weapons and ASAT, or anti-satellite systems. Russia is reported to be developing satellite-launched weapons.
Speaking recently at an event at The Heritage Foundation, Justin T. Johnson, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, said Russian and Chinese weapons could threaten “missile warning systems, precision, navigation and timing technologies and weather forecasting.”
The challenge of tracking high-speed hypersonic weapons is also bringing new dynamics to space warfare, given that they can travel at more than five-times the speed of sound. This threat naturally requires what industry and Pentagon weapons developers explain as a need to develop a “continuous track” following the entire trajectory of an incoming hypersonic weapon.
The need to stop hypersonic weapons attacks is growing in significance and urgency, according to many senior Congressional and U.S. military leaders. Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe, said China was in fact ahead of the United States regarding hypersonic weapons development.
“Last October, China paraded a hypersonic weapon, showing off a technology we don’t even have yet,” Inhofe said earlier this year on the Senate floor, when talking about the need for a very strong 2021 military budget.
Part of the effort to better network satellites hinges upon the rapid addition of new satellite constellations to include Medium and Low-Earth Orbit systems, faster, lower-flying systems able to build in redundancy, closely track ground threats and share information more seamlessly.
This phenomenon explains part of why the Missile Defense Agency is working quickly to refine and integrate space-based sensing and command and control, as higher speed approaching missiles will need closer and more continuous tracking.
“We call it 'tracking' because it's missile tracking—so it provides detection, tracking and fire control formation for hypersonic glide vehicles, ballistic missiles ... any of those kinds of threats,” Tournear said.
Kris Osborn is the new 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.