The U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command (SSC) has conducted two critical design reviews for Missile Track Custody (MTC) Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) Overhead Persistent Infrared Sensor (OPIR) payloads by Raytheon Technologies [RTX] and Boeing‘s [BA] Millenium Space Systems.

SSC said that both company’s designs are on schedule. Lt. Col. Gary Goff, materiel leader for strategic payloads in SSC’s space sensing directorate, said in a statement that “the CDRs proved the sensors’ designs are mature, and we can move from demo to development.”

“Along with ground architecture in development, the MTC program will significantly enhance U.S. missile warning and tracking capabilities, particularly in the area of monitoring hypersonic glide vehicles,” Goff said.

The MTC payloads are to track missile launches and hypersonic glide vehicles from MEO and to integrate with the Space Development Agency (SDA) Tracking Layer satellites and Lockheed Martin‘s [LMT] Space Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) geosynchronous Earth orbit and highly elliptical orbit(GEO/HEO)satellites.

The U.S. tracks missile launches via GEO and HEO satellites and plans to expand that coverage to low Earth orbit (LEO) through the fielding of SDA’s Tracking Layer. The MEO satellites would expand missile tracking coverage.

“The next step is a system-level CDR projected for summer 2023 with the same two contracted companies and will involve the full space vehicle design,” SSC said. “If successful designs are matured and proven, the program can then proceed into building multiple satellites to operate in a plane of capability as part of the MTC initial capability which is currently slated for two launches in late 2026.”

Millenium Space Systems said that its MTC payload design “takes advantage of five years of development work at Boeing, employing high levels of on-board track autonomy to enable exceptional booster and hypersonic glide vehicle target detection and tracking,” while Raytheon said that the company “used digital engineering-based models and demonstrations to show that the designs of key elements – including focal plane, electronics, firmware, and the telescope – are ready for fabrication.”

Lockheed Martin has said that “the OPIR mission has become more critical as ballistic missile technology has proliferated around the world with over 1,000 missile launches tracked annually.”

The SBIRS GEO satellites are to inform the design of their successor, Lockheed Martin’s Next Generation OPIR GEO system. Like the SBIRS GEO-5 and GEO-6 satellites, the Next Generation OPIR GEO satellites are to be based on Lockheed Martin’s modernized LM-2100 combat bus, which is to provide cyber hardening, resilience features, and improved power, propulsion and electronics.

Lockheed Martin won the non-competitive, sole-source contract worth $2.9 billion to develop the three Next-Gen OPIR GEO satellites in August 2018 and a follow-on $4.9 billion contract in January last year. Raytheon and a Northrop Grumman [NOC]/Ball Aerospace [BLL] team are competing to build those GEO payloads.

Northrop Grumman is also building two polar orbit satellites for missile warning over the northern hemisphere under Block O of Next-Gen OPIR and received a nearly $2.4 billion contract in May 2020 for early hardware procurement for the satellites.

Next Gen OPIR is to improve upon existing Lockheed Martin Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites by providing resilient missile warning against counter-space and emerging missile threats, including “dimmer and faster targets,” such as hypersonic missiles, Lockheed Martin has said.

Congress is giving some thought as to what should happen if SBIRS satellites retire early and/or the Next Generation OPIR GEO program is delayed.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s draft fiscal 2023 defense bill would add $400 million to accelerate the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command low Earth orbit (LEO) missile warning and missile tracking effort; $300 million for enhancing the planned medium Earth orbit (MEO) missile warning and missile tracking constellation to increase the number of orbital medium field of view planes for satellites to increase polar coverage; and $216 million for two additional launches of LEO satellites for missile warning and missile tracking (Defense Daily, July 28).

“The committee understands that the [Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared] program is schedule-driven with the constraining factor being the remaining life expectancy of the current Space Based Infrared Radar System,” per the committee’s draft report on the bill. “Given that ballistic missile defense is a no-fail mission, a capability gap cannot be tolerated. However, analysis of the MEO/LEO constellation programs during the fiscal year 2023 program and budget review indicate that they are scheduled to field prior to NGEN OPIR, deliver additional capability to track emerging threats, and provide a distributed transport layer, all within a more resilient architecture with a modernized acquisition approach for future capability upgrades. The committee realizes that a change in architecture is required to compete in space, particularly in the transition from a benign environment to a warfighting domain.”