The speed at which a hypersonic missile can travel from one radar field of view to another makes the weapons extremely difficult, if not impossible, to track. Russia’s wartime use of hypersonic weapons and the realization that both Russia and China possess operational hypersonic weapons is not only inspiring rapid US movement toward deployment of its own hypersonic weapons arsenal but also inspiring intense focus upon methods to defend against hypersonic weapons.
This is a large reason why the Missile Defense Agencies’ 2023 defense budget proposal includes funding for the emerging Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor, or HBTSS program.
The effort, now underway with Northrop Grumman and the MDA, seeks to network satellites in order to help create a real-time, continuous “track” on incoming hypersonic ballistic missiles, something quite difficult given that hypersonic weapons are extremely maneuverable. Hypersonic projectiles do not follow a standard parabola-like trajectory associated with ballistic missiles but can evade defenses through speed and varied movements.
The HBTSS effort is aligned with the Pentagon’s fast-emerging Overhead Persistent Infrared Enterprise Architecture. The program will provide fire control quality tracking data on hypersonic threats for handover to missile defense sensors and engagement by missile defense weapons.
The need to defend against hypersonic weapons has been on the radar for many years now and continued to grow in its urgency, particularly given that both Russia and China now operate them. For example, an interesting 2017 essay in AIP Conference Proceedings cites a need for the U.S. military to re-craft its command and control doctrine to better track hypersonic threats.
Recommended for You
Video Above: Peter Huessy and Kris Osborn discuss the nuclear threat, modernization, deterrence, Putin and more
“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.
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.
Newer kinds of Medium and Low Earth Orbit satellites can be networked and operate at lower altitudes to the ground compared to standard Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) satellites. With hardened networking and secure connectivity, groups of meshed satellite nodes can help to form a “continuous” track of a high-speed hypersonic weapon. If a track is established, then there can be a possibility to achieve an intercept.
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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.