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Video Above: Is This the Beginning of an Arms Race?

*Top Warrior Maven Story of 2021. Republished for viewer interest.

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

Is the seemingly impossible actually impossible? This kind of paradoxical thinking might explain some of the current conceptual and design work now informing new innovations related to actually “tracking,” “stopping,” “countering,” destroying” and ultimately “defending” hypersonic missile attacks.

The question continues to be a pressing focus for the Pentagon which continues ambitious science & technology programs, advanced research and nearer term conceptual and design efforts to attempt what some might regard as seemingly impossible. 

Hypersonic Weapons

Clearly any salvo of incoming hypersonic weapons, which could be described as a kind of hypersonic “bolt out of the blue,” would overwhelm defenses. This is part of why the military services are moving quickly to engineer and deploy “offensive” hypersonic weapons to ensure a precise, large-scale and effective counterattack as a deterrence method. 

However, this does not mean there are not clear and fast-progressing efforts to integrate “offense and defense” into a combined sensing, weapons and intercept strategy intended to thwart, derail or simply stop a hypersonic attack.

While there may be a wide range of longer-term multi-domain applications for this, the initial MDA-Pentagon effort is looking at merging the GPI with ship-based Aegis weapons systems. advanced fire control, ballistic missile defense and radar systems intended to track and destroy approaching threats from varying strategically vital locations.

Aegis Weapon System

Aegis Weapons System

“Interceptors will be fired from Navy Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense destroyers using the standard Vertical Launch System (VLS) and will also integrate with the modified Baseline 9 Aegis Weapon System to detect, track, control, and engage hypersonic threats in the glide phase of the missile's descent. Any prototypes designed will fit into the current Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system,” a statement from the Missile Defense Agency says.

Glide Phase Interceptor

The overall effort has taken a large step forward with the Missile Defense Agency’s award to industry for the Glide Phase Interceptor, a novel, high-speed and very precise interceptor weapon intended to track and destroy attacking hypersonic weapons during the “glide” phase as the re-approach and enter the earth’s atmosphere. 

While still progressing in a conceptual and design phase, the Pentagon has awarded development deals to Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon to advance the technology and develop designs. The MDA deal, described as an “Other Transaction Authority,” is intended to accelerate concept design to meet the urgent and fast-pressing need to engineer hypersonic weapons defense.

While many details related to the various industry offerings are not available for understandable and obvious security reasons, Raytheon executives and weapons developers are likely leveraging the companies’ experience with missile defense, advanced missile interceptor hypersonic weapons engineering, kill vehicle technology and space flight systems.

"GPI's speed, ability to withstand extreme heat, and maneuverability will make it the first missile designed to engage this advanced threat," Tay Fitzgerald, vice president of Strategic Missile Defense, said in a company statement.

Aegis ship based radar and weapons systems have been architected to be extremely agile and upgradeable in terms of development, meaning new software configurations change, adjust, improve and actualize new technological breakthroughs in the realm of defense. 

Software upgrades, such as those incorporated into what the MDA calls Baseline 9, accelerate, improve and streamline threat detection, radar return, fire control loop and interceptor launch processing. 

There are likely many elements to this to include a growing number of Low and Medium Earth Orbit Satellites able to network with one another to establish a continuous radar track of a weapon moving as quickly as five-times the speed of sound. 

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This kind of detection, being developed through programs such as Northrop Grumman’s Hypersonic Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor, can be at times quickly networked and sent to the ground or ship deck through optical links and other transport layer technologies.

Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor satellites will provide continuous tracking and handoff to enable targeting of enemy missiles launched from land, sea or air.

Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor satellites will provide continuous tracking and handoff to enable targeting of enemy missiles launched from land, sea or air.

"We are pleased to have these contractors working with us to develop design concepts for the GPI," said Rear Adm. Tom Druggan, MDA's Sea-based Weapon Systems program executive. "Multiple awards allow us to execute a risk reduction phase to explore industry concepts and maximize the benefits of a competitive environment to demonstrate the most effective and reliable Glide Phase Interceptor for regional hypersonic defense, as soon as possible."

Destroying Hypersonic Weapons

The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency is pushing the envelope of possibility by fast-tracking design and concept work on a new innovative technology intended to destroy hypersonic weapons attacks moving at five times the speed of sound along the boundary of the earth’s atmosphere.

The Glide Phase Interceptor program, now moving into a new developmental phase, is a Missile Defense Agency effort which just awarded development deals to Raytheon, Northrop and Lockheed. The concept, which will soon enter into more elaborate digital design, engineering and prototyping phases, is based upon the ability to achieve an “intercept kill” of an attacking hypersonic glide body during its “glide phase” of flight before it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere.

A hypersonic boost-glide weapon is thrust up beyond the earth’s 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 in 2021, according to a Pentagon transcript.

Video Above: Can the US Defend Against Hypersonic Weapons?

Glide Phase Interceptor Development Timeline

Initial thoughts were that a GPI might not come to fruition until the 2030s, Hill said, certain innovations and technological progress is 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 on ship-based Aegis radar models and ground systems. The plan for prototypes of the interceptor, the MDA says, are to integrate them with the Aegis ship-based combat system which connects missile radar with fire control, computing, ship-based command and control and missile firing technology.

The plan for the GPI, according to an MDA statement, is to initially develop the weapon to fire from the Vertical Launch Systems on the deck of a Navy warship, exiting the attack tubes from the same place SM-3s, SM-6s and Tomahawks fire from.

While many details related to potential technologies for the program in the areas of propulsion, guidance or speed are not likely to be available for understandable security reasons, it seems quite significant that there may be evolving ways to track a hypersonic missile traveling quickly between radar fields of view and then launch a kinetic interceptor fast and precise enough to destroy the weapon.

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.

One reason why the possibility of intercepting a hypersonic weapon may become more realistic relates to an interesting technology developed by Raytheon referred to as “launch on remote.” This means detection and tracking can take place somewhere farther way and not necessarily on the ship. Advanced sensing and networking technologies may enable radar systems and sensors to find a hypersonic missile from beyond line of sight or over the horizon and succeed in quickly getting target track details to the ship’s fire control and launch systems.

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.

“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. 

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization