The U.S. Space Force intends to field “birth to death” tracking of hypersonic missiles for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) by 2030, Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson said on Apr. 5.

“Right now, our biggest challenge, frankly, is hypersonics,” Thompson said in response to a question after a luncheon address to the U.S. Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference at National Harbor, Md. “We have a fabulous ballistic missile warning architecture. It has facilitated the Missile Defense Agency in providing ballistic missile defense. Hypersonics are a whole new challenge.”

The Space Force is requesting a $1.1 billion increase over last year’s appropriated amount for low Earth orbit (LEO) and Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) missile tracking systems.

The service’s request for the LEO portion of the architecture is nearly $1.3 billion–a $480 million increase over last year, while the Space Force’s ask for the MEO part is $538 million, about $130 million more than last year’s appropriation (Defense Daily, March 16).

In addition, the Space Force requests almost $506 million for a new funding area for the architecture–the integrated ground segment.

The budget zeroes research and development funding for one of the three planned geosynchronous orbit (GEO) Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next Gen OPIR) missile warning satellites by Lockheed Martin [LMT], as the Space Force posits that having a band of many, smaller satellites in the lower orbits of LEO and MEO will complicate an adversary’s anti-satellite targeting and improve deterrence against adversary ballistic and hypersonic missile attacks (Defense Daily, March 15).

In addition to Next Gen OPIR, which also has a Northrop Grumman [NOC] polar segment, the Space Force’s Space Development Agency (SDA) is working on its tracking and transport layers, to help defeat Chinese and Russian hypersonic missiles through the use of hundreds of satellites in lower orbits.

Developing space sensors for detection and tracking is the most significant challenge for the U.S. hypersonic missile defense effort, according to a report last year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) (Defense Daily, Feb. 14, 2022).

The nation’s current ballistic missile defense system (BMDS) is not well suited to tracking hypersonic missiles and intercepting them in their early phases, U.S. military officials have said.

“Sensing remains the central bottleneck to realizing a hypersonic area defense capability,” per the CSIS report. “The current BMDS is dependent on a relatively small number of surface-based radars to track incoming weapons. Constrained by the horizon, current BMDS sensors can only support counter-hypersonic engagements in the final phases of flight. The speed of hypersonic weapons leaves little time for computing a fire control solution, communicating with command authorities, and completing an engagement.”

“Supported by a low-latency communications network, elevated sensors of various kinds are necessary to resolve the range and mobility challenges associated with surface-based systems,” the report said. “Space-based sensors would enable a ‘birth-to-death’ tracking capability: the ability to follow a hypersonic weapon through the entirety of its trajectory. Such a capability would be critical for disrupting or defeating hypersonic weapons early in flight where interception is easier and follow-up shots are possible. A space-based sensor constellation would also aid in targeting adversary missile forces after launch and engaging traditional ballistic missile threats. These characteristics make space-based sensors essential for realizing a scalable and comprehensive missile defense architecture.”

MDA is preparing to shift its hypersonic missile defense effort from analysis to hardware development (Defense Daily, March 27).

Raytheon Technologies [RTX] and Northrop Grumman have been involved in the Glide Phase Interceptor (GPI) program.

MDA Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill said that MDA plans to deploy GPI first to naval vessels “and then we’re also in parallel looking at what we can do for forward deployed air bases and Army maneuver forces.”

Thompson said on Apr. 5 that the Space Force has “about a dozen spacecraft” for missile warning.

“The official requirement is 7, and we do a very effective job of providing missile warning,” he said. “The problem with that is 7 satellites are very vulnerable. Eliminate one, eliminate two, eliminate three, [and] the nation and the Joint Force have a problem. In the future, that’s gonna be 100, 200, 300 satellites. ‘Good luck. Take out one. Take out two. Take out three. Take out a dozen, and it’s not really gonna significantly degrade the capabilities.’ Rather than small numbers of very large, very exquisite, very sophisticated spacecraft, we’re gonna field dozens, hundreds, and perhaps thousands of spacecraft to do those missions. Good luck if you’re an adversary trying to deny that capability to our Joint Forces.”

Northrop Grumman Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites, a handful of which remain operational,  and Lockheed Martin Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites in geosynchronous orbits are suited to ballistic missile detection and tracking, but will not be adept at tracking highly maneuverable hypersonic missiles, though the satellites are able to pick up the hot plume of a hypersonic weapon’s rocket booster after launch, officials have said.

The challenge for Space Force in developing space-based sensors for hypersonic missile tracking will be in adapting air and ground sensor technologies and techniques for use in space, Thompson said on Apr. 5.

“The engineering technology challenge is the conceptual development and then making the technology small enough, powerful enough and operate the way it needs to operate effectively, which is a substantial engineering challenge, but there’s not a particular new technology or sensors that we don’t know from other [efforts],” he said.