The United States launches a constellation of satellites against the threat of hypersonic missiles

Hypersonic weapon systems are classified based on whether they reach speeds of or greater than Mach 5, i.e. 5 times the speed of sound. It is also useful to group these types of weapons according to their range: short range (less than 1,000 km), medium range (between 1,000 and 3,000 km), intermediate range (between 3,000 and 5,500 km), and intercontinental (5,500 more than). km).

The two main categories of these new weapons are hypersonic glide systems and powered cruise missiles. Propelled cruise missiles are multi-stage rocket-propelled vehicles that accelerate to the point where the ramjet-powered sustaining stage can accomplish the mission. Hypersonic boost-glide systems work by accelerating a glide vehicle to hypersonic speed in several stages, usually using solid rockets, and then the vehicle glides without power to complete its mission.

hypersonic weapons

Hypersonic strike weapons are being developed for applications ranging from short range to intercontinental. Russia has reportedly deployed an intercontinental range system called Avangard, as well as the Kinzhal, an air-launched ballistic missile. Russia is also developing Tsirkon, a ship-launched hypersonic system capable of attacking land and naval targets.

For its part, China has publicly shown off its DF-17 medium-range hypersonic boost-glide system, and there is plenty of information about major testing of its new DF-ZF.

The United States is also developing medium- and intermediate-range hypersonic strike weapons. These include Conventional Fast Strike Weapon (CPS), Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW), AGM-183 Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) and Tactical Boost Weapon (TBG).

At the forefront of hypersonic weapons, offensive weapons will likely never stop evolving as a critical component of great power rivalry, offering long-range rapid strike capabilities.

Technological advances in the areas of propulsion, materials, sensors, weapons, aerodynamics and component miniaturization will enable the production of effective weapons at lower costs and smaller sizes, resulting in significantly larger arsenals.

Additionally, significant hypersonic defense capabilities are expected to be developed along with the introduction of offensive strike weapons, and the United States is expected to utilize early advantages of its global ICBM defense systems.

The first integrated defense system is expected to emerge, which will provide effective mid-course and terminal protection against hypersonic attacks. The affordability approach should lead to smaller, more efficient interceptors and fully integrated non-kinetic capabilities in the future.

locating and tracking

The sensor architecture used today in missile defense is oriented toward powerful surface radar. But in today’s increasingly complex air and missile threat environment, ground systems have inherent limitations.

Ground-based radar has limited ability to detect and track low-flying threats such as cruise missiles, which remain hidden until they approach due to the curvature of the Earth. They are rare compared to their size and price.

Radar installations are also potential targets due to their fixed position and energy output. In particular, cruise missile defense, hypersonic defense, and combat unmanned aerial systems (UAS) depend on expanding the horizon of deterrence.

Cruise missiles, unlike ballistic missiles, fly on unpredictable flight paths and at low altitudes, often beyond the range of ground sensors. Instead, airborne sensors can provide continuous coverage and are not limited by the orbital mechanics of the spacecraft, but they have smaller detection footprints and must be located somewhere.

Space-based sensors extend the area of ​​interaction by providing sensor coverage beyond the line of sight of ground-based radar and by looking outward or downward over topographic features that might obscure cruise missiles or small unmanned units from view.

Early detection, in turn, allows time for dispersal, concealment or other types of passive defense, while also increasing the time for active defense intervention.

Satellites in low (LEO), medium (MEO), geostationary (GEO), and highly elliptical (HEO) orbits are examples of traditional multi-orbit designs. LEO constellations benefit from proliferation and economies of scale, but suffer from orbital persistence and longevity issues.

MEO constellations provide greater coverage and persistence, although they may require more expensive satellites with wider visual system apertures. GEO and HEO orbits require fewer satellites to cover a specific pole or longitude, but are much more expensive. The space sensor constellation has the capability to track missiles from launch to final destination.

This “birth to death” surveillance capability allows space sensors to continuously monitor an evolving threat, making them especially important for countering hypersonic ballistic missiles and maneuvering missiles. It also reduces the need for multiple ground sensors to go off-track, ensuring a consistent target trajectory.

American Constellation

The US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and Space Development Agency (SDA) recently announced a space program to detect and intercept hypersonic vehicles in LEO.

The six satellites are part of the Joint Homeland Security Mission (USSF-124) between the MDA and SDA that aims to track hypersonic weapons. Four of these satellites carry missile tracking sensors manufactured by L3Harris for the SDA tracking layer constellation.

MDA’s Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) program includes two other satellites, one of which was built by L3Harris and the other by Northrop Grumman.

The Tracking Layer group aims to create a global network of sensors that will act as a barrier against ballistic and hypersonic missiles from China and Russia.

HBTSS include sensors designed to track threats in high fidelity and transmit information to interceptor missiles that will attempt to shoot them down, while SDA satellites are used to detect hypersonic threats.

To intercept hypersonic missiles, HBTSS must integrate fire control data with sufficient accuracy to guide the interceptor to shoot down the incoming missile. While infrared and electro-optical detection technologies are established, tracking hypersonic missiles is significantly more challenging than normal ballistic missile warning.

Isolating the hypersonic heat signature from Earth’s background has been compared to monitoring a slightly brighter signature in the ocean, which requires significant testing and modeling to confirm.

This constellation, USSF-124, will be launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Base in Florida in 2024.

(With information from agencies and The Eurasian Times)

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