Pentagon developing satellite program to track hypersonic missiles in flight

By Caitlin Doornbos -STARS AND STRIPES 

This photo provided by the Navy shows a common hypersonic glide body launching from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii, on March 19, 2020, during a Defence Department flight experiment. The department is working in collaboration with industry and academia to field hypersonic warfighting capabilities. (Luke Lamborn/U.S. Navy via AP)

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon will spend about $1.3 billion to develop a global network of satellites by 2025 to track hypersonic missiles in mid-flight, the Defense Department’s Space Development Agency announced Monday. The funds will be split between L3Harris Technologies, Inc. and Northrup Grumman Strategic Space Systems to purchase the development and launch of 28 satellites that will use infrared data and network communications to detect, track and warn warfighters of hypersonic missiles, which travel at speeds greater than Mach 5 or about five times the speed of sound.

U.S. satellites can now identify a hypersonic missile but have limited mid-light tracking capabilities, said Derek Tournear, the agency’s director.  While the  U.S. is still developing its own hypersonic missiles, China and Russia have already fielded the advanced missiles. Russian forces have used them in battle during its war in Ukraine, the Pentagon has said. “[Before hypersonics], I would put a warhead on top of a very big rocket. I would light that rocket up, it would make a very bright flash, and I could see its trajectory very early on. Then I could use physics … to predict exactly where that missile was going into land,” Tournear said. “That worked for many decades. Now, missiles have changed.”

Hypersonic missiles can use atmospheric forces to maneuver midair, he said. That means the old way of using math and science to predict a ballistic missile’s path can’t account for direction changes post-launch. “I will not be able to predict where it’s going to land because it’s going to maneuver significantly,” Tournear said. The U.S. had not launched satellites with hypersonic-tracking capabilities previously because space was not a threatened environment, he said.

With space now considered a challenged environment and, by some, a warfighting domain, changes must be made. “Historically, our architecture was designed in an environment that was very benign … so you could design your architecture based on environment where you didn’t expect to see any threats,” Tournear said. “So, because of that we have to completely change the way that we do our space architecture.” The 28 satellites will be launched seven at a time on four different flights to allow them to be placed in “slightly different locations” in space to allow for maximum coverage, he said. Each will fly about 621 miles above Earth and will be “polar orbiting, which means they’ll go over the globe from north to south and around the globe.” “These satellites are specifically designed to go after that next generation version of threats out there so that we can detect and track these hypersonic maneuvering vehicles and predict their impact point,” Tournear said.

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