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A Kestrel Eye satellite in orbit. (Photo: DVIDS - U.S. Army's Space and Missile Defense Technical Center)

We are building in space an extended array of multitudes of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. This array is a joint project between the Space Development Agency (SDA) and the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and will be able to provide global birth to death tracking of hypersonic, ballistic, and cruise missiles, as well as navigation and timing systems for beyond-line-of-sight targeting for both offensive and defensive capabilities. These LEO satellites will communicate with every system across the joint force in the future Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) “network of networks” concept aimed at connecting sensors and shooters to every command and control node, allowing shooters and sensors to share data amongst each other to enable the best effector for intercept. This means a joint, cross-domain and eventually allied weapon systems on the ground, at sea, or in the air could be tasked with intercepting the threat, but more importantly this provides the decision makers the edge with vast collected sensor data to vast effectors to enable much more efficient defense and a next generation deterrence. Having this capability is a top priority for U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) for deterrence and defense, as well as every U.S. combatant commander around the world.

In this array, there will be three different types of satellites: wide-field view, medium-field of view, and the transport layer. The purpose of the space sensor layer satellites is to work together to detect, track, and pass sensor data to a weapon system on the ground, sea, and air to neutralize these missile threats and allow accurate counter-fire to those threats where originally launched. The array is also designed to be able to track newly-developing hypersonic missiles for long periods of time and also has the potential to detect and track the growing complexity of hypersonic cruise missiles.

  • Wide-field-of-view (WFoV) satellites are part of the SDA’s initiative to have a constellation of hundreds of satellites in LEO. WFoV satellites will orbit the highest of the three types of satellites to provide the widest and longest views of hypersonic and ballistic missiles in flight. Eight WFoV satellites are planned to be in orbit in the Space Sensor Layer by fiscal year (FY) 2022. These eight satellites will be able to connect into the transport layer satellites. They operate with infrared sensors and are capable of initial hypersonic weapon tracking through its flight enabling time for targeting.
  • Medium-field-view (MFoV) satellites are the satellites used for the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) program. HBTSS will provide discrimination sensors for hypersonic and ballistic missiles to detect, isolate, and target the warhead from the space debris and decoys as the threat missile travels across space and within the Earth’s high atmosphere. These medium view satellites once cued, will maintain custody of the threat until it is neutralized. The MFoV satellites are planned to be integrated into the Space Sensor Layer in FY 2023. If resourced in the FY 2021 budget, the MFoV would be coupled to be deployed with the WFoV satellites in 2022.
  • The transport layer is an array of satellites that create a mesh network. They facilitate communication between the wide and medium field of view satellites and pass the tracking and targeting data to ground stations for dissemination to the appropriate weapon system. In relation to JADC2, the transport layer will serve as the main unifying truss. The transport layer satellites are planned to make up the twenty satellites in tranche zero, with more to be deployed in tranches one and two. The mesh-like network is similar to that of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite program, with several satellites operating together to communicate and deliver information.

The kill chain to defeat hypersonic and ballistic missiles comprises all three of these space layers, with the wide field of view satellites first identifying and beginning to track a launch. It sends a cue to the medium field of view that takes custody of tracking and targeting. The medium field of view satellites will pass the tracking data up to the transport layer and relay that information to a transport layer satellite close enough to a ground/sea/air platforms that can begin engaging the target. With a limited number of 44 Ground Based Interceptors (GBIs) to defend the U.S. homeland from a growing North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat, this HBTSS system will be linked through the transport layer into the Command and Control, Battle Management, and Communications (C2BMC), which will significantly reduce the shot doctrine and thereby force multiply the current capacity of 44 GBIs from what it is today. This reduction of shot doctrine for the GBIs plays a significant risk reducer as the nation awaits the deployment of the Next Generation interceptor (NGI). The transport layer can also relay targeting data from the WFoV or MFoV satellites to the Navy’s Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC), the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), and the Army’s Tactical Intelligence Targeting Access Node (TITAN) to JADC2, to enable the Navy, Air Force and Army to track and negate the missile threat and destroy the origin of the launch with joint, cross-domain long-range precision fires.

The SDA with MDA are taking a “spiraling up” approach over six years, beginning with Tranche Zero that will send eight wide-field-of-view satellites up at the end of FY 2022, establish an Optical Inter-satellite Link (OISL) between the satellites in LEO, and test tracking data. Next, in Tranche One will be medium-field-of-view HBTSS satellites in FY 2023.  By the end of Tranche One, there will be a mixture of 70 wide and medium satellites in orbit. “That will give us enough coverage in LEO so that we can have essentially regional persistence,” Dr. Derek Tournear at MDAA’s virtual CRT on June 4th. Dr. Tournear marks this as initial operational capacity (IOC). Tranche Two will include the deployment of 150 satellites, giving the necessary full global coverage. Tranche Two will come in the fourth quarter of FY 2024 and end in FY 2026. The transport layer will be sent up and dispersed throughout the other tranches, with the first ten transport layer satellites going up in Tranche Zero at the end of 2022.

Preparations for Tranche Zero have already begun. On June 5th, SDA released a call for bids for a tracking phenomenology experiment. The goal of the experiment is to develop sensor algorithms to integrate into the SDA’s space sensor system as well as supplement two other DARPA Project Blackjack satellites. Building off of current sensor technology that MDA has developed, deployed on time, on budget, and has had tremendous success in – the Space Tracking and Surveillance (STSS) satellite and the Space-based Kill Assessment (SKA) to prove out space tracking and targeting with constellations that used a combination of commercial and military space lift operations. SDA plans for this experiment to lead to a sensor that can separate missile signals from background noise in space. In short, the “tracking phenomenology experiment” is a vital piece to developing the basic structure needed for the space sensor layer.

There are around 800 LEO satellites in orbit, with the average cost of placing an object in orbit being $10,000 per pound. On June 3, SpaceX launched 60 new satellites into orbit on their Falcon 9 rocket at a cost of $2,500 per pound. SpaceX’s goal is to put 10,000 satellites in orbit over the next few years with the goal of eventually placing up to 60,000 satellites in orbit. The low-cost technology used to deploy the satellites with the Falcon 9 rocket can be applied to the launching of the transport layer satellites, the WFoV satellites, and MFoV satellites to break the cost-curve of the past and bring forward a revolutionary and global effective defense that breaks the generational stigma with birth to death tracking against all the missile threats known and to be known.

This will go where no sensor system has gone before.

Mission Statement

MDAA’s mission is to make the world safer by advocating for the development and deployment of missile defense systems to defend the United States, its armed forces and its allies against missile threats.

MDAA is the only organization in existence whose primary mission is to educate the American public about missile defense issues and to recruit, organize, and mobilize proponents to advocate for the critical need of missile defense. We are a non-partisan membership-based and membership-funded organization that does not advocate on behalf of any specific system, technology, architecture or entity.