The director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) this week gave an update on the Space-based Kill Assessment (SKA) project and explained the utility of a potential new Hawaiian radar, currently unfunded in the fiscal year 2022 budget request.

Speaking at a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) event Tuesday, Vice Adm. Jon Hill said the SKA’s full constellation of satellites is deployed in orbit now and noted upcoming plans.

“What we’re going to do in this year is to get to a hit assessment. So you can see a flash, that’s great, but I want to be able to tell [commander of NORAD and Northern Command Gen. Glen VanHerck] you have a hit. And then we want to go from hit to do we have a kill,” Hill said.

He said the difference in detection of the two is more complex than it sounds. Detecting a flash is useful for overall awareness, “but once you can determine that you’ve had a hit that’s helpful, that helps you adjust shot doctrine potentially. And then if you have a firm kill then you really have an impact on the salvo policy. So those are the stages that we’re going through and [the FY ‘22 budget request] takes us to that firm hit assessment.” 

MDA’s budget request documents said in the next fiscal year the agency plans to  complete development of the operational hit assessment software code, continue developing kill assessment algorithms and threat models, and finalize integration of SKA operation interface to add the system capability to the operational all-domain missile defense system. 

The agency is requesting $293 million in FY ‘22 for overall missile defense space programs, including funding the SKA project.

SKA uses a network of fast-rate infrared sensors based on commercial satellites to deliver a hit and kill assessment capability for homeland missile defense. 

“As MDA’s pathfinder program to host military payloads on commercial satellites, SKA proved that commercial hosting can deploy assets on orbit quickly – around half the time of the average traditional space program, and at significant cost savings. SKA sensors on orbit today have participated successfully in a variety of MDA flight tests and engineering activities,” budget documents said.

Separately, Hill explained the utility of a Homeland Defense Radar- Hawaii (HDR-H), which the agency has zeroed out in both the FY ‘21 and new FY ‘22 budget requests. 

The FY ‘17 defense authorization bill required MDA to develop a plan to procure a discriminating radar or sensor to improve missile defense of Hawaii. The last time MDA requested HDR-H funds was in the FY ‘20 budget with $275 million. At the time, the agency expected to finish development and initial fielding of the system by FY ‘23 and planned to request military construction funds in FY ‘21, which would last from 2021-2022 (Defense Daily, March 12, 2019).

However, the actual FY ‘21 request zeroed funds for the program. The House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee’s FY ‘21 defense authorization bill mark  said it was concerned by the cancellation and directed the MDA director to submit a report on the impact of canceling the HDR-H as well as the additional Pacific Radar project (Defense Daily, June 24, 2020).

Speaking at CSIS this week, Hill explained the utility of HDR-H in the future to better defend against advancing missile capabilities.

“The warfighter generally likes multiple phenomenology on any target, meaning different radar frequencies, a mix of infrared and radar,” he said. The warfighter has better confidence of defending against missile threats when there is better tracking.

Hill underscored that while the current sensor architecture can defend Hawaii today, “but as you start to go into that more complex scene where you’ve got multiple countermeasures, multiple [Reentry Vehicles (RVs)], multiple maneuvering RVs, potentially nuclear – wow, you got to make sure that you can discriminate all of that so that you’re getting the Next Generation Interceptor or [Ground Based Interceptors] on target so that you can kill them in space before they ever come down and affect the islands.”

“And if you look at where those launch points are, just pick any country in the [Indo-Pacific Command] theater, and you look at where those go – that scenario where you’re going to end up with is a lot of uncertainty with the track unless you have a sensor on it. In general the warfighters will want launch-to-demise coverage of that threat,” he said. “Again, we can handle it today but as we get more complex, that becomes very hard and without a sensor on the island it’s difficult.”