U.S. To Build Hypersonic Missile Tracking Satellites Given ‘Severity’ Of ‘Threat’

U.S. To Build Hypersonic Missile Tracking Satellites Given ‘Severity’ Of ‘Threat’

The U.S. Space Development Agency announced two contract awards on Monday to build 28 warfighting satellites that will track hypersonic missiles as the race to dominate space continues between global superpowers. 

L3Harris Technologies, Inc. of Melbourne, Florida, and Northrop Grumman Strategic Space Systems of Redondo Beach, California, received the contracts from U.S. officials to reach the agency’s goal of launching the Tranche 1 Tracking Layer, a mesh network of 126 optically-interconnected space vehicles, by September 2024. The cost is $1.3 billion. 

“The speed with which SDA pursued this effort is commendable, given the severity of the hypersonic missile threat,” Christopher E. Kubasik, chair and chief executive officer of L3Harris, said. “This prime contract is a testament to our growing impact in the space community and affirms our strategy of being a Trusted Disruptor is gaining traction.”

Both teams have agreed to construct two planes with seven space vehicles per plane and 14 satellites each to collect infrared data and provide network communications. 

Derek Tournear, director of Space Development Agency, signaled his optimism about both tech companies. 

“[Space Development Agency] is confident that selection of the L3 Harris and Northrop Grumman teams provides the best overall solution to accelerate delivery of a low-Earth orbit constellation with wide-field-of-view infrared sensors for a global missile warning and missile tracking capability in Tranche 1, on schedule,” Tournear said.  

This year, Congress shelled the space agency an additional $550 million to accelerate the deployment of Tranche 1 — specifically in support of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

The hypersonic arms race worldwide continues to escalate as more technologies have developed, with the U.S., China, and Russia seemingly leading the pack. 

Larry Wortzel, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council who serves on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, told Science.org that China’s hypersonic weapons “seem deliberately targeted at upending the tenuous strategic stability that has been in place since the end of the Cold War.” 

He said China could launch strikes with conventional hypersonic weapons over the rising tensions with Taiwan that could weaken U.S. forces in the Pacific Ocean.

Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, told The Wall Street Journal that China has successfully produced, tested, and deployed its hypersonic weapons.

“This led some Pentagon thinkers to propose the idea of a weapon that could allow the U.S. military to quickly strike some threats,” Heath said.

Meanwhile, Science.org reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin and the nation’s defense ministry said last month that forces are ready to use nuclear-armed hypersonic glide vehicles for combat. If launched, the action would give Putin the right to claim mother Russia became the first country to use hypersonic weapons.  

Analysts have called the U.S. defenseless against rocket-boosted hypersonic weapons. 

Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, told Science.org that the U.S. needs to track the missile’s maneuvers in the atmosphere to avoid shooting blindly. 

In response to the Pentagon’s space defense agency developing hundreds of satellites to track foreign missiles traveling faster than the speed of light, the sensors would pave the way to build interceptors.

“You’ll need interceptors with more divert capability than we have,” Karako said.

Pentagon officials have requested $3.8 billion this year for its hypersonic weapons programs. 

The Space Defense Agency said the Operations and Integration Centers at Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota, and Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, will launch the satellites in April 2025.