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Video Above: Air War in 2050 - Air Force Research Lab Commander on Hypersonics 

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

Enemy ICBMs stream through space along with decoys, debris and countermeasures, hypersonic missiles travel so quickly along the boundary of the earth’s atmosphere that it is nearly impossible to develop a continuous “track” as they transit from one radar aperture to another and ground missile launches could happen in rapid succession creating a “salvo” effect in an overwhelming attack.

Missile Defense - Satellites

Missile defense technology has made staggering steps forward in recent years, and is now poised for additional breakthroughs, yet an even newer paradigm is needed to counter an emerging new generation of threat such as hypersonic weapons, high-speed multiple re-entry vehicles and advanced countermeasures flying alongside ICBMs.

Recognizing this, the Pentagon is moving quickly to launch new constellations of high-tech, networked satellites for the specific purpose of establishing that “continuous” track and strengthening the layers of missile defense using paradigm-changing space technology.

A threat-representative ICBM target launches from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands on March 25, 2019. It was successfully intercepted by two long-range Ground-based Interceptors launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (Courtesy of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency)

A threat-representative ICBM target launches from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands on March 25, 2019. It was successfully intercepted by two long-range Ground-based Interceptors launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (Courtesy of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency)

Accomplishing this requires non-line-of-sight targeting and connectivity, high-speed data sharing, AI-enabled information processing and transmission and, perhaps most of all, the addition of new constellations of Low and Medium Earth Orbit Satellites to complement traditional Geosynchronous higher altitude satellites. Essentially, hundreds of new satellites need to go up to help “blanket” otherwise unreachable target areas and exchange threat track data quickly enough and accurately enough to ensure a targeting “trajectory” is not lost as a high-speed weapon transits from one field of regard to another.

This is why the Space Development Agency is accelerating its plan to launch 28 new satellites by 2025 through its $1.3 billion Tranche 1 Tracking Layer missile warning program. Space Development Agency Directory Derek Tournear explained that the multi-pronged launch initiative, which will break up 28 satellites into four different launches with seven satellites on each, is grounded upon two key conceptual pillars. These are “proliferation” and “spiral development,” Tournear told reporters at the Pentagon, specifying that there is literally a need for hundreds and hundreds of satellites to operate in space while continuously gaining new capability every “two years” through ongoing spiraled development.

“We want to enable beyond line of sight targeting and get data for targets anywhere in the world. With new hypersonic glide vehicles, we need to detect them, track them and calculate a targeting solution to send down to an interceptor,” Space Development Agency Directory Derek Tournear, told reporters in a recent media event.

The point with a massive increase in satellites is to not only build in redundancy and resiliency, but also to use breakthrough “throughput” speeds to cover more of the earth in real time, while networking large numbers of lower-altitude satellites to one another.

Some of the Pentagon’s industry partners are working with the military services to better enable and safeguard the ability for satellite constellations to instantly share data across otherwise unreachable envelopes of space or ground terrain coverage. Raytheon Intelligence and Space, for instance, is working to pioneer a software-based “product line” able to multiply functionality with individual satellites, network satellites to one another in real time and enable high-speed data interoperability through a set of common standards and IP protocol engineered to exchange time-sensitive information.

“If you had a subsystem on every satellite, it did everything that sensor needed to do and everything the sensor processing, and you have the networking function, and you have this disparate communication link trying to get that data near real time back to the user. If you added them all up, you'd be this would be a monster satellite, it would not be a small satellite, nor would it be affordable. And, and so we have a product line, we call it the Sentinel product line,” David Anderson, Senior Official with  SEAKR, a Raytheon subsidiary, told Warrior in an interview. 

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With individual satellites able to use updated, common software to perform a wide range of otherwise disparate functions, there is less of a need to reconfigure hardware and separate satellites by the kinds of operations they perform. In this respect, Raytheon Intelligence & Space and Blue Canyon’s strategic approach to ongoing modernizations aligns closely with the kind of “spiraling” Tournear described related to the sought after operational benefit associated with the new satellite launches.

“You don't have to carry the cost or the mass burden of having fully disparate systems. Obviously, you have the transmitters, and you have the sensor. In some cases you have an optical or laser inter satellite link. But the brains, which would be what we call our central product line, is specifically designed to do all three functions with nothing more than software. And that software can be changed literally within a fraction of a second, you can repurpose those to the next stage,” Anderson said. 

The idea is to not only detect the initial flash through Space Based Infrared Sensors such as the now emerging Overhead Persistent Infrared satellites, but also to network high-throughput data processing between satellites to maintain a track beyond the earth’s atmosphere into space. This can ensure that an incoming weapon as fast as a maneuvering hypersonic missile can be continuously tracked for the purpose of establishing real-time “global coverage.” The goal is to predict the impact point throughout the entire flight of the missile.”

Raytheon Intelligence & Space, and its Blue Canyon subsidiary, have been conducting research and experimentation to offer new kinds of multi-function sensing, networking and data processing to the military services, based on its adaptable software model.

“The concept there is that our processing systems are very generic. These are fully 100% Software Defined processing systems. So the same box, the same piece of hardware that you're going to buy, can be programmed to do the sensor processing, it can be programmed to do the networking, and it can be programmed to do communications. It’s kind of a gateway concept,” Anderson said. “You can actually have the concept of formation or a grouping of satellites, where some are actually doing the sensor collection, some are doing the comprehensive networking and some are doing the communication systems.”

Gateway systems, engineered with common technical standards to enable interoperability, are becoming increasingly critical in a data-driven war environment, as they can take data from one format such as RF, GPS or a given wireless frequency, and use advance software and computing to align them with one another and essentially “translate” between otherwise incompatible data formats. This is the kind of seamless connectivity and multi-functional satellite operations envisioned by Raytheon Intelligence & Space, Blue Canyon and recently acquired wholly owned subsidiary SEAKR Engineering.

Part of Blue Canyon’s technical approach is based upon its “Saturn Bus” product line, a physically large “bus” designed to generate more power, higher data throughput, more payload accommodation and more instrument accommodation, McConnell explained.

With GEO satellites performing the initial “warning” by detecting the launch “flash,” MEO and LEO satellites can in large numbers gather data, process data and transmit data, hopefully at speeds fast enough to sustain a targeting track on a threat. Much of this can be enabled by AI-enabled data processing at the point of collection, using advanced algorithms and computer automation

“The goal there is to bring that processing right to the edge of the sensor systems on orbit, and do data reduction, do data analysis, do compression and storage and optimize the whole rest of the chain,” Anderson added.

Inter-satellite links, networking and data connectivity provided by SEAKR Engineering is what brings this concept fully to life, as software upgrades and common data standards can enable a high-speed data relay system, perhaps the most critical element in establishing a track.

“We also have made the bus very configurable in the comm aspects. So we have our own products for radios as S band and X band. And we have created interfaces that can accommodate third party radios to go very high bandwidth if we need high data throughput. These are big data systems that need to push a lot of information quickly. We've designed the power system to accommodate these,” Karen McConnell, executive director, engineering, Blue Canyon Technologies, a Raytheon Technologies subsidiary, told Warrior.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. 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.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization