(Washington, D.C.) Hypersonic weapons skipping along the upper boundary of the earth’s atmosphere at five times the speed of sound, ICBMs boosting into space for cross-continental attack and sub-launched ballistic missiles descending from an upward arch before shooting down to a target on earth ….are all attacks that cannot be stopped unless they are seen.
An infrared space sensor can find the heat signature of an enemy missile launch, ground-based interceptors can be guided to take out an approaching ICBM in space, and threat information can be sent to ground command centers giving senior leaders an opportunity to make decisions under attack … but does this happen fast enough?
The threat equation has totally changed, prompting the Pentagon to fast-track technologies able to detect, track, and destroy an entirely new generation of weapons.
"Sensing" Hypersonic Weapons
The problem is so urgent, in part given the pace at which Russia and China continue to test hypersonic weapons and massively increase their respective nuclear arsenals, that Vice Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Gen. John Hyten referred to continuous global threat “sensing” as his number one most sought after technology.
“We have to see something before it comes, so I’d like one capability that will allow us to see these threats globally at any time. We can build a space architecture that can see different threats such as hypersonics, cruise missiles .. and identify what those threats are,” Gen. John Hyten, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an audience at the 2021 Space and Missile Defense Symposium, Huntsville Ala.
Interestingly, Hyten explained this upon being asked which one technology, if he had to pick one, would he most wish for prior to his planned retirement.
Will Hyten’s wish be granted? It may be too early to tell, but industry is now doing a lot of accelerated work to deliver this capability. Hyten did say there are ongoing Space Force and Missile Defense Agency programs now working to address this challenge.
“We are going after this problem,” Hyten said.
Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared Polar program
Northrop Grumman, for example, is now working on a development contract with the Pentagon on a “Next-Gen Polar” satellite system and payload technologies specifically engineered to provide critical early missile warning capabilities and attack characterization to the U.S. missile defense system, providing maximum preparation time for missiles to be intercepted, developers say.
In a multi-billion dollar deal awarded by the United States Space Force, Northrop Grumman will provide flight hardware, ground system development and risk reduction functions for Phase 1 of what’s called Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared Polar program. The deal covers the design and development of the first two polar-orbiting space vehicles, according to a Northrop statement.
“NGP advances the capabilities on orbit today with SBIRS providing greater resolution; coverage; sensitivity; cybersecurity; revisit rates; protected, assured and survivable communications that significantly improve detection speed and probability; as well as additional resiliency should warfighting extend into space," Mike Ciffone, director, Strategy, Capture & Operations, OPIR & Geospatial Systems, Northrop Grumman, told reports at the SMD Symposium.
In a related effort, Northrop is also working on payload technologies to support Lockheed Martin’s now in development Overhead Persistent Infrared Next-Gen GEO program.
Target Trajectory and Transmit Information
Success in developing a track relies upon both establishing a continued target trajectory and an ability to share, network or transmit the track information from one satellite to another and one satellite to ground-based command and control centers.
Optical cross links, which can use laser connectivity and fiber optics to transmit high-value data at the speed of light between satellites to enable a kind of “mesh” networking between nodes in space designed to bridge an otherwise disruptive “gap” in tracking a threat.
Naturally this is something which becomes increasingly challenged when trying to defend against hypersonic missiles traveling at more than five times the speed of sound.
“Responding to cues from the Next Gen OPIR missile warning layer, an HBTSS constellation will fill the gap in missile defense space sensing, handing off tracking data to battle management and fire control systems supporting the intercept of advanced missile threats, including hypersonic glide vehicles.”
Hypersonic weapons can of course transit from one radar aperture to another at unprecedented speeds, making it almost impossible for geographically segmented radar systems to establish a continued track on a target.
“We are working with the MDA to define a spiral approach to do a prototype constellation that will involve a handful of satellites using optical cross links,” Ciffone said.
Hypersonic weapons “could reach targets that are 1000km away within minutes,” an interesting 2019 essay from a UK-based think tank called Article36. The essay is titled “Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.”
Significantly, the impact of this kind of threat seems to be anticipated in a 2017 essay in AIP Conference Proceedings which cites a need for the U.S. military to re-craft its command and control doctrine to better track hypersonic threats.
“While operational doctrine and command structures adequately address traditional atmospheric air attack or exoatmospheric ballistic missile attack, existing doctrine and organizational structure may not be adequate to address the cross-domain threat posed by hypersonics,” the essay, called “Global Strike Hypersonic Weapons,” states.
The Next-Gen GEO will operate above the mid-latitudes of the earth but cannot fully or easily reach polar elliptical orbit, whereas the Polar system will “dwell over the Northern Hemisphere” to catch missiles as they traverse between continents.
In many instances, the shortest travel distance between North America and other continents such as Europe or even parts of Asia or Russia involves traveling through the Arctic.
For example, a polar satellite could, if sufficiently networked to securely transmit time-sensitive information across multiple nodes in real-time, ground control commanders might learn of a sub-launched long-range ballistic missile early in its flight trajectory. This becomes much more difficult in the case of a moving target, Ciffone said, because maneuvering missiles might not follow a predictable “parabola-like” trajectory making it easier to discern or anticipate the weapons speed and expected point of impact.
The challenge of truly being able to “see” things faster and more completely anywhere in the globe, as described by Hyten, continues to grow more pressing as potential enemies continue to advance new technologies designed to prevent detection or intercept such as EW countermeasures to jam radar, decoys and coordinated multiple attacks.
This scenario was anticipated in an interesting document called “Army Air & Missile Defense 2018 Vision,” which specifies some of the more difficult challenges presented by enemy weapons.
For instance, regarding ballistic missile threats, the Army Vision essay explains that advanced weapons are now engineered with “countermeasures, maneuverable re-entry vehicles, multiple independent reentry vehicles, hypersonic/supersonic glide vehicles and electronic attack.”
It seems almost too self-evident to mention that an ability to succeed in truly establishing a continuous “track” requires a multi-domain approach involving space, air, ground and sea assets operating with an ability to instantly network sensitive and timely track data.
Maj. Gen. Robert Rasch, Program Executive Officer, Missiles and Space, said the MDA has the lead when it comes to hypersonics missile defense but that air-ground synergy would be crucial to success.
“Army will have a role, as there is not a solution box that does not require joint sensing. It will take combined sensing to track a hypersonic target over time,” Rasch said at the symposium.
Hypersonic Ballistic Missile Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS)
As part of a combined Pentagon-industry effort to counter hypersonic missiles, Northrop Grumman is also working on an emerging system called Hypersonic Ballistic Missile Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS).
HBTSS is designed to help make hypersonic missile defense possible, despite the speed and destructive power of hypersonic attacks .HBTSS is, among other things, being engineered with a specific mind to establishing a continuous track, following hypersonic weapons with a single sensor payload from launch through impact.
“HBTSS' mission is to detect and track hypersonic threats and ballistic missiles, providing low-latency critical data to the Missile Defense System,” a Missile Defense Agency spokesperson told Warrior earlier in the development of HBTSS
Existing radar systems, which analyze an electronic return signal after bouncing off a threat, are limited by a linear trajectory and cannot extend beyond the horizon without an airborne sensor node. As a result, the Pentagon continues to improve networking technologies designed to link and integrate a variety of otherwise disparate radars.
HBTSS is, by contrast, engineered to establish a continuous track of an approaching missile, better-enabling countermeasure options such as an interceptor missile, EW system designed to throw the missile off course or other kinds of emerging defensive options.
“HBTSS will be a network of sensors on a constellation of satellites in orbit around the Earth with the ability to observe global threats without the line of site limitations of ground-based radars,” a Missile Defense Agency spokesperson told Warrior.
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.