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

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

If there might actually be an emerging method through which to actually stop hypersonic missile attacks and succeed in efforts to establish an effective defense, it will likely rely heavily upon data sharing, high-speed data processing and AI.

The challenge is to of course not only establish a continuous track of an attack weapon moving more than five times the speed of sound but also implement a countermeasure whether it involved the deployment of an interceptor fast enough to achieve a kinetic “hit” of a hypersonic weapon or some method of “jamming” or disrupting the missile’s flight trajectory or air flow.

Any method would unquestionably rely upon the speed of information transmission, which is why the Pentagon, industry and the Missile Defense Agency are working on a number of program with which to establish a continuous track. 

When a missile traveling that fast passes from one radar “field of regard” to another, it could be lost in transition and therefore need to be reacquired. That is a process which can impede any continuous tracking and therefore complicate any effort to establish a track loop sufficient to destroy the attack.

Hypersonic Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor Technology 

Networking and processing this kind of data is the reason why the Pentagon is launching a new Hypersonic Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor technology to establish a continuous track of fast-moving hypersonic missiles from “beyond-line-of-sight” by networking small satellites to one another.

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.

“One method is obviously data fusion and doing what fusion implies, I need to get that data that comes from the satellites down to the ground and to weapons as quickly as possible. A method of doing that is potentially processing some of that data in real time to a weapons database and transfer that data from the satellite system down to the weapon,” Mike Ciffone, director, Strategy, Capture & Operations, OPIR & Geospatial Systems, Northrop Grumman, told reports at the SMD Symposium a few months ago.

Some of the data processing, for instance, can potentially be AI-enabled and also performed at the point of data receipt, essentially wherever the incoming sensor data first arrives.

“There's a tremendous amount of data that comes out of that space. How do you effectively utilize that data in terms of integrating that with your weapon?” Mike Ciffone, director, Strategy, Capture & Operations, OPIR & Geospatial Systems, Northrop Grumman, told reports at the SMD Symposium.

Computer processing is becoming much faster and of course AI enabled, a series of technical breakthroughs which enable incoming sensor data to be instantly analyzed, organized, assessed and streamlined. With this, key points, moments or objects of relevance can be found and sent to commanders at speeds exponentially faster than what may have previously been possible.

This means that critical data such as anticipated flight path, landing time and location as well as things such as speed and altitude can be calculated by advanced computer algorithms able to bound incoming specifics off of a huge, seemingly limitless database to make comparisons, examine similar past scenarios and establish near real-time analytics to organize data, find optimal courses of action and relay them to human decision makers through a fire-control, sensor-to-shooter loop that is exponentially faster than what had previously been possible. Most of all, it enables a fast exchange of information across previously disaggregated areas or “segments” of detection not otherwise integrated to one another.

In order for the Pentagon’s nascent Glide Phase Interceptor weapon to be able to “take out” a hypersonic missile traveling through space at more than 5-times the speed of sound … the missile needs to be seen.

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How? If the weapon is traveling so quickly that it transits from one segmented radar field of review in a certain geographical region to another at unprecedented speeds, can the tracking information be shared fast enough to enable an interceptor to “lock on” to its flight path.

“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.

The Pentagon is working vigorously to solve this problem, and it is one reason why early conceptual and computer simulation work on the GPI is being done in coordination with an emerging technology called Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HTBSS)..

HBTSS is designed to leverage a growing network of new smaller, lower-altitude Low and Medium Earth Orbit Satellites operating as a “meshed” network of extended, long-range nodes able to transmit target track specifics in real time. The idea is to track otherwise “beyond-line-of-sight” targets enabling fire control to establish and maintain a track early in the weapons launch, striking it just prior to its descent.

“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,” Navy Vice Adm. Jon Hill, Director, Missile Defense Agency told reporters earlier this year, according to a Pentagon transcript.

HBTSS Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor

HBTSS Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor

The MDA has now awarded concept and design GPI deals to Raytheon, Lockheed and Northrop Grumman with the intent of strengthening what agency officials describe as a “layered defense.”

HBTSS could help find targets for the GPI and potentially pass them along in seconds while a hypersonic missile is traveling to its target.

“The GPI concept fits into the MDA's missile defense architecture to provide

the warfighter and its allies with reliable layered defense against regional

hypersonic missile threats from rogue-nations,” an MDA statement said.

The GPIs are being slated to fire from ship-integrated Vertical Launch Systems using Aegis weapons systems, yet the targeting details can first come from space sensors such as HBTSS which Northrop Grumman developers describe as an “integrated constellation.

“When you look at a system like this where we have a constellation of many dozens of satellites in the future, you want to get a model of the performance of that integrated constellation. And so having the digital engineering capability and the modeling and simulation tools allows us to model the performance of those complex architectures and get to optimize the system in a way now that we wouldn't have traditionally been able to do with legacy methods,” Mike Ciffone, director, Strategy, Capture & Operations, OPIR & Geospatial Systems, Northrop Grumman, told reports at the SMD Symposium.

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