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By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

(Washington, D.C.) Amid all the talk of danger and ominous warnings.... hold on for a second. There may be several emerging ways to actually track and destroy hypersonic weapons. Could that be realistic, knowing the speed, maneuverability and potential destruction associated with hypersonic missiles able to travel at five times the speed of sound?

Responding to the seriousness of the existing Russian and Chinese hypersonic threat, the US Missile Defense Agency has presented a challenge to industry to develop a multi-layered defensive concept.

Hypersonic Defense Challenge

“China continues in pursuit of advanced weapon systems with really novel attributes and capabilities, such as a hypersonic weapons dual use capability that transcends the formal and normative delineations between domains,” Adm. Charles “Chas” Richard, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said recently at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium, Huntsville, Ala.

Chinese Hypersonic Missile

Chinese hypersonic weapon.

The aim is to “see,” “find,” “track,” and ultimately “destroy” a new generation of approaching hypersonic glide vehicles across air, land and sea, as cited by Richard. The challenge is as cutting edge as it is serious. The hope is that an operational hypersonic defense will emerge in the immediate future, given the urgent nature of the threat, and the fact that there is, at least at the moment, no known solution.

“The emergence of numerous more maneuverable threats, such as hypersonic glide vehicles are evading the ability of our ground based radar networks. They present challenges to our missile defense capabilities, and there's presently no way to counter these threats,” Mike Ciffone, director, Strategy, Capture & Operations, OPIR & Geospatial Systems, Northrop Grumman, told reports at the SMD Symposium.

HBTSS (Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor Program)

One program showing promise is ongoing Missile Defense Agency work with industry to engineer new satellites and payloads capable of establishing and “sustaining” a target track on seemingly unstoppable or elusive hypersonic attacks. 

It's called HBTSS, for Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor program, an emerging satellite program intended to follow maneuvering hypersonic glide vehicles which do not follow the well-known “parabolic” curve trajectory of ballistic missiles.

Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS)

Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor program

“As you look at that boost phase, it would normally follow a predictable arc where it burns out at the top of its trajectory. You could forecast forward and estimate that impact point where it's going to land and then provide attribution of the source of that,” Ciffone said.

Maneuvering hypersonic threats, however, follow a different trajectory and their position is not deterministic, he explained.

“Hypersonic glide vehicle launches occur in succession. The HBTSS detects the initial launch, and the first, second and third stages of separation. The HBTSS data is continuously relayed in real time to create a track of the hypersonic glide vehicle,” Ciffone said.

Ciffone said Northrop Grumman, who makes HBTSS, will be launching an orbit test in 2023 to establish an ability to track hypersonic threats by handing off track information to the missile defense infrastructure. The goal in this instance is of course to get an interceptor or defensive weapons of some kind in position to take out the hypersonic glide vehicle.

“HBTSS is a prototype program on a very rapid progressive schedule. And this is important to ensure our capability is keeping pace with the threat. So our commanders need to be absolutely certain that the data they're getting from these detection and tracking systems is both precise, timely and correct,” Ciffone said.

There is a lot of highly advanced technical work now informing the maturation of HBTSS, given that legacy or existing radar systems operate with a set “aperture,” or “field of regard,” meaning they are limited within a certain detection purview or envelope. A maneuvering hypersonic glide vehicle, however, will pass so quickly from one field of view to another, that it can become nearly impossible to establish a “continuous” track, something much needed to succeed with an actual intercept.

“You've got to pass through the eyes of the radar to get a track, you need to then do the exclusive algorithmic work to get to discrimination.. then you've got to launch your interceptor and you got to talk to that interceptor and that's all the time we get. We have to integrate missile A into combat system D,” Ciffone said.

Modernizing Missile & Weapons Technologies

HBTSS and other Pentagon areas of emphasis are part of a sweeping strategic effort to better track and destroy enemy ICBMs and long-range ballistic missiles by investing in new technologies. New technologies are needed to track larger numbers of newer, faster and far more lethal enemy weapons traveling near or just above the boundaries of the earth’s atmosphere.

Much of this involves shortening the pace at which requirements for new technologies are created and refined by looking specifically at how systems from the respective services will integrate with one another in a “joint” warfighting environment.

“There are certain joint capabilities that we had never specified to the joint force which are now called functional battles, joint fires, joint command and control, logistics and information advantage,” Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Hyten told an audience at the 2021 Space and Missile Defense Symposium, Huntsville, Ala.

As for achieving this, Hyten stressed the importance of working with industry to innovate and help identify key “gaps” or areas of need within missile warning systems. Much of this pertains to a series of steps needed to find needed points of emphasis within the “kill chain.”

Some of these measures were expressed by Northrop Grumman missile defense technology developers now engineering new missile warning technologies and sensor payloads engineered to find, track and help destroy enemy weapons transiting through space.

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A senior weapons developer with Northrop Grumman said an approach can be summarized in three distinct phases.

  • “One is to work within each one of these elements within the kill chain, meaning how to optimize systems detect, optimize how systems interact and invest in those systems in each one of those elements. 
  • The second way that you could approach this is by investing in new capabilities and new technologies within those elements,” Ciffone explained. 

Once vulnerabilities within a detection network are found, then areas of investment in new technical systems to address them can be fast-tracked and targeted to specific needs.

  • “The third one is the one that we have focused on, and that is really looking at the gaps and the seams in the kill chain, and discovering what are the enabling technologies that help us tie those capabilities together,” Ciffone said.

Ciffone emphasized that Northrop has been working to identify and invest in promising technologies in an effort to anticipate Pentagon missile defense needs and try to stay in front of emerging requirements. 

While details about many of these particular systems are not likely to be available for obvious security reasons, they likely involve things like long-range, high-fidelity sensing, fiber-optic communications and new transport layer communications technology able to instantly “network” or share threat data much more quickly than has previously been possible.

“We have actually discovered that there are certain technologies and capabilities that we can invest in that will help us tie the elements of the chain together. This has been significantly important. We believe that we've been investing the last two or three years in those capabilities and those technologies to help define our approach to doing this by looking at it from a system of systems perspective,” Ciffone added.

The intent with HBTSS is to build a new network of fast-moving, networked, space-based sensors engineered to “detect and track” hypersonic threats as they quickly move from one radar field of regard to another. Nothrop Grumman received a $153 million deal from the MDA to develop HBTSS. The HBTSS will, among other things, integrate with the Pentagon’s

“We’ve got a CDR (Critical Design Review) coming up here later this year as we work toward delivering the prototype in 2023,” Ciffone said. 

Simply seeing, tracking or finding an attacking hypersonic missile is of course a crucial element needed for defense, yet it is simply not enough. Threat information of a maneuvering, high-speed missile transiting between radar fields of regard must not only be tracked, but also processed and communicated. 

Crucial data such as information about the flight trajectory needs to be organized, processed, sent through command and control and ultimately given to an interceptor or countermeasure of some kind. How can this happen? Can it happen fast enough to stop a hypersonic threat?

“There's a tremendous amount of data that comes out of that space. How do you effectively utilize that data in terms of integrating that with your weapon?" Ciffone said. 

There are several ways that the Pentagon, Missile Defense Agency and industry partners are working to accomplish this in a matter of seconds, to give defenders an opportunity to actually knock out a hypersonic weapon.

“One method is obviously data fusion and doing what fusion implies, I need to get that data that comes from the satellites down to the ground and to weapons as quickly as possible. A method of doing that is potentially processing some of that data in real time to a weapons database and transfer that data from the satellite system down to the weapon,” Ciffone said.

Some of the data processing, for instance, can potentially be AI-enabled and also performed at the point of data receipt, essentially wherever the incoming sensor data first arrives. Computer processing is becoming much faster and of course AI enabled, a series of technical breakthroughs which enable incoming sensor data to be instantly analyzed, organized, assessed and streamlined. With this, key points, moments or objects of relevance can be found and sent to commanders at speeds exponentially faster than what may have previously been possible.

The success of this also naturally depends upon networking satellites and sensor nodes to one another, something which is a major focus for Pentagon, MDA and Northrop developers. This may be one key reason why the military services are quickly building and deploying faster, smaller and better networked Low and Medium Earth Orbit satellites. 

These new systems complement larger Geospatial satellite networks and are designed to closely cover wide swaths of expansive geographical areas by networking. This is exactly why Northrop Grumman is engineering, testing and planning to deploy HBTSS. to create a new network of smaller, high-resolution satellites able to track a hypersonic weapon. 

“When you look at a system like this where we have a constellation of many dozens of satellites in the future, you want to get a model of the performance of that integrated constellation. And so having the digital engineering capability and the modeling and simulation tools allows us to model the performance of those complex architectures and get to optimize the system in a way now that we wouldn't have traditionally been able to do with legacy methods,” Ciffone said. “When it comes to national security, failure is not an option. The nation can't afford to rely on unproven technology when lives are at stake.”

Kris Osborn is the 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 Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

-- Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the 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 Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President