The United States is building a new satellite system to track hypersonic weapons following repeated demonstrations of such weapons by China and Russia.
The Pentagon announcement two contracts on July 18, worth a combined $1.3 billion, to develop an advanced satellite system that is expected to be in orbit from April 2025.
The Space Development Agency (SDA) has awarded the contracts for two prototype Missile Warning and Tracking Systems to join the National Defense Space Architecture. The satellite constellations will provide persistent detection, warning, tracking and identification of conventional and hypersonic missiles around the world.
The contracts were awarded to L3Harris Technologies and Northrop Grumman. Each company will build 14 satellites that will be used to collect infrared data and provide network communications to the entire US defense architecture. The companies will also provide launch and support services for the satellites under their respective contracts.
“I’m excited to see our industry partners building the market necessary to rapidly deliver new space-based capabilities to the warfighter,” said SDA Director Derek Tournear.
The systems will be part of the Tranche 1 (T1) layer of the new US space architecture. The T1 transport architecture has been approved for development in February this year and will include some 126 satellites by 2024.
Intended to provide a resilient, low-latency, high-volume data transport communications system, the layer is part of a larger US military effort to create a more distributed space architecture.
“The T1 tracking layer effort is a critical step toward building the National Defense space architecture,” Tournear said.
“SDA is confident that the selection of the L3 Harris and Northrop Grumman teams provides the best overall solution to expedite the delivery of a constellation in low Earth orbit with wide-field-of-view infrared sensors for global warning and tracking capability. Tranche 1 missiles, on schedule.
The SDA has received an additional $550 million on top of its fiscal year 2022 budget to accelerate the deployment of the T1 layer in support of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, given the current focus by the United States. States on the management of their rivalry with China. The new satellite systems are expected to provide increased capability to all Army combat commands, including the Indo-Pacific.
The program’s focus on locating and tracking missiles comes nearly a year after the Chinese communist regime secretly tested a hypersonic weapon and orbital bombardment system. The system, likely designed as a first-use nuclear weapon, alarmed many in the defense and intelligence communities who believed China was much further behind in its military modernization agenda.
China has continued to test new hypersonic capabilities since then, even as US military leaders warned the United States was years behind in hypersonic development, having largely abandoned it in 2011.
Today, political leaders fear that the United States is losing its ability to defend itself against foreign aggression.
As such, the nation is rushing to improve its systems. Those efforts have included space-based missile detection and early warning systems like those announced on Monday, but also investments in projects as large as high-altitude balloons for missile tracking.
In a similar vein, the US military announced earlier this month that it had successfully tested an air-launched hypersonic missile as part of its ongoing efforts to develop new hypersonic capabilities.