(Washington, D.C.) Could there truly be a way to track and intercept or destroy enemy hypersonic missiles speeding at more than five times the speed of sound while skipping along the upper boundaries of the earth’s atmosphere before descending upon targets?
Glide Phase Interceptor
Maybe, depending upon the speed and success with which the Missile Defense Agency is able to developing a new generation of hypersonic defense called the Glide Phase Interceptor, a developmental program to engineer a high altitude, long-range missile able to fire from the ground or deck of Navy ship to “take out” a traveling hypersonic missile during phases of its flight when it might be more vulnerable to destruction.
A hypersonic boost-glide weapon, for example, is thrust up into the atmosphere to glide at hypersonic speeds before descending upon its target at unparalleled speed. It is at this “glide” point in the missile’s trajectory where there is the best opportunity to intercept it, just prior to its turning down into its ultimate high-speed descent.
“So when you're in the glide phase -- which is higher up from the terminal, right, where a hypersonic vehicle is likely in its most vulnerable phase -- that's actually a pretty tough environment to be in. And you can't take an air defense weapon and operate it there nor can you take a space weapon like an SM-3 and operate there, it's just a different environment,” Navy Vice Adm. Jon Hill, Director, Missile Defense Agency told reporters, according to a Pentagon transcript.
Hill explained that the MDA is now “maturing technologies” and working with industry to evolve “seekers and materials for operating” in that portion of the atmosphere, as well as exploring propulsion techniques to succeed in firing an interceptor capable of reaching and destroying an hypersonic weapon during its glide phase.
Initial thoughts were that a GPI might not come to fruition until the 2030s, Hill said, however several promising more recent developments are now indicating that the arrival of this kind of technology may be sooner than expected. This is due to resulting data collected from live fires during experiments ship-based Aegis radar models and ground systems.
Aegis Ship & HBTSS
“We found that we can close the fire control loop with an Aegis ship that has already proven queuing launch-on-remote and engage on remote capability,” Hill said.
Launch of remote is an advanced fire control technology system wherein interceptor missiles can be directed from dispersed locations through networking, enabling new range and delivery options for firing interceptors.
Launch-on-remote is something which became possible in recent years through upgrades to ship-integrated Aegis radar systems and networking developments enabling dispersed assets to pass targeting information and other crucial data to shoot off interceptors.
The MDA also intends to integrate GPI with an emerging now-in-development high-tech, hypersonic weapons tracking satellite called the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor, HBTSS.
The entire concept, from launch on remote to satellite missile tracking technology, is based upon target detail networking and a need to establish a continuous “track” on a fast moving hypersonic missile.
Given the speed at which hypersonic missiles travel, it could otherwise be difficult for separate radar apertures or fields of view to pass target tracking flight details from one geographical segment to another, given the pace with which hypersonics can transit from one major area to another. This creates an essential need to establish a steady, continuous target track sufficient to target and destroy the missile.
“HBTSS is on the path to launch two interoperable satellites that are built by two separate industry partners. So the idea is to keep competition in early, given the complexity of the mission. It is the only program within the space portfolio that provides fire control quality data down to a weapon system like Glide Phase Interceptor,” Hill said.
While many observers, lawmakers and Pentagon weapons developers may express some measure of disappointment that the Missile Defense Agencies’ 2022 budget request is slightly lower than last year, there is a massive focus on innovation and new technologies likely to inspire both attention and praise given the current threat environment.
Missile Defense Agency Budget 2022
The MDA budget request for 2022 of $8.9 billion, a slight drop from last years’ $9.1 billion, allocates as much as 80-percent of the funds for research and development efforts.
MDA leaders recently explained the rationale for this kind of massive R&D focus as something of crucial necessity given the rapid emergency of a large number of new threats. As much as $7.2 billion has been slated for R&D, MDA officials explained.
Michelle Atkinson, MDA Director for Operations recently explained the nature of these threats in several categories to include the proliferation of ballistic missiles, the growing sophistication of enemy ballistic missiles and what she described as a “blurring” of lines between ballistic and non-ballistic threats, the emergence of hypersonics and the introduction of greater numbers of enemy cruise missiles.
As for the growing sophistication of enemy ballistic missiles, Atkinson said enemy systems are “becoming more mobile, survivable, reliable and accurate, and can achieve longer ranges.
New ballistic missile systems also feature multiple and maneuverable reentry vehicles, along with decoys and jamming devices,” according to a Pentagon transcript of her remarks on the budget. She also mentioned the increasing possibility that hypersonic glide vehicles could be delivered by ballistic missile boosters. “These threats can travel at exceptional speeds with unpredictable flight paths. This poses new challenges to our missile defense systems,” she said.
In terms of cruise missiles, Atkinson said there is an expectation that hypersonic cruise missiles will be deployed in the future and that land-attack cruise missiles will attack with an improved ability to minimize radar signature and use countermeasures.
The budget does include provisions for continued production of several key current systems such as the SM-3 Block 1B and 2A for the Navy and Theater High Altitude Air Defense Missiles for the Army. Interestingly, the budget provides for specific funds to better defend Guam in the Pacific.
While Atkinson did not elaborate in great detail on other specific areas of R&D, however there are a number of key cutting edge areas of current developmental emphasis such as an emerging hypersonic defense weapon called the Glide Phase Interceptor, new space-operating satellites called Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor engineered to track hypersonic missiles, the Next-Gen Interceptor ICBM killer to advance technology beyond the current Ground Based Interceptor, and various kinds of laser “power-scaling” aimed at evolving space-functioning laser interceptors to help track or even incinerate approaching enemy ICBMs.
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.