The Small Sat Solution to Hypersonic Weapons Explained

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November 5, 2019 | Originally published by Date Line: November 5 on

Hypersonic weapons break all the rules of the missile defense game. With speeds surpassing Mach 5 and the ability to maneuver mid-flight, hypersonic weapons defy the missile defense status quo, potentially making the United States’ current defenses obsolete. China and Russia are vigorously pursuing hypersonic weapons, and the United States is desperate to neutralize them.

“China is also developing increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile warheads and hypersonic glide vehicles in an attempt to counter ballistic missile defense systems,” Defense Intelligence Agency Director Robert Ashley said in his March 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment. “Russia claims a new class of hypersonic glide vehicle under development will allow Russian strategic missiles to penetrate missile defense systems. Iran is pursuing long-range, precision land-attack cruise missiles as well as development of more powerful space launch vehicles — boosters that would be capable of ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] ranges if configured for that purpose.”

The Space Development Agency and the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) have a plan:  a proliferated low-Earth orbit constellation comprised of hundreds of satellites capable of detecting and tracking hypersonics. And Congress appears to be supportive of the concept. Both the House and Senate opted to include $108 million for a hypersonic weapons tracking layer in space in the national defense policy bill, which was on the MDA’s list of unfunded priorities. Some in the national security community believe a space sensor layer is the key to meeting the hypersonics threat, but what exactly is the hypersonic threat and how would a space sensor layer change things?