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Future LEO Missile Warning Constellation. Credit: SDA

“It is clear that the character of war has changed, and space is foundational to that change.”
– General Jay Raymond, USSF, Chief of Space Operations

The Space Force is answering the call to enhance its national defense architecture with emphasis on resiliency and survivability in missile warning and missile tracking,  with a requested 41% budget increase of $7.1 billion from FY22 to FY23. Improvements in satellite constellations, long range radar capabilities, and communications technology, will lead the Space Force to become the dominant player in the missile awareness missile defense and missile discrimination of the world. 

At the 2022 Space Symposium in April, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall III restated the department’s priority in nuclear command and control and missile warning. The FY23 Space Force budget request includes $1B of new funding specifically for resilient Missile Warning and Missile Tracking (MW/MT) capabilities. The plan represents a hybrid-orbit, multilayer approach to increase redundancy and resilience. USSF’s Space Warfighting Analysis Center (SWAC) which stood up in 2021 has prioritized developing a recommendation for the future MW/MT architecture and has recommended an architecture with 135 satellites in low-Earth-orbit (LEO) and 16 in medium-Earth-orbit (MEO).

This new architecture will augment existing SBIRS and in-progress Next-Gen OPIR constellations in geostationary and highly elliptical (GEO and HEO) orbits. SBIRS and NG-OPIR will provide global persistent coverage, then cue satellites at LEO and MEO to track missiles’ flight paths. The assets detect a launch, then characterize the missile by analyzing its heat signature, and finally cue satellites at low earth orbit (LEO) to track its path. MEO will be the backup for tracking.
In LEO, $499.8M will go to the Tracking Layer which uses SDA’s new a wide-field of view infrared sensor and MDA’s new medium-field of view Hypersonic and Ballistic Space Sensor (HBTSS) to track both traditional ballistic missiles and dimly lit hypersonic missiles. SDA expects to launch 8 in 2023 as prototype demonstration (“Tranche 0”), and have 28 of the 135 on orbit by 2025 (“Tranche 1”). MDA plans to launch 2 of its HBTSS prototype demonstrations in 2023.

Since MEO provides reasonable coverage and has fewer anti-satellite threats as in LEO and GEO, the idea is to “have some satellites at MEO to be able to add in resiliency in the event that one or multiple layers are attacked,” per Dr. Derek Tournear, SDA’s director. $139.1M will go to the Space Systems Command’s Missile Warning constellation in MEO, which the Space Force aims to transition to a program of record in FY23. The goal is to have 4 of the 16 MEO satellites on orbit by FY28.

$390.6M will go to developing ground-based systems to relay data to and from these LEO and MEO MW/MT satellites. For now, satellites at all orbits will utilize the Joint OPIR Ground system for data synthesis and fusion and then disseminate data to create targeting packages for missile defense shooters.

Ultimately, this space-based system-of-systems must be able to detect, discriminate, track and provide firing solutions to terrestrial, air and space based effectors against a missile launched anywhere in the world. These missiles could be ballistic, hypersonic, long-range precision or even anti-satellite, and need to be identified very quickly. After the GEO satellites detect, characterize missiles at initial launch points and cue terrestrial sensors, SDA’s Tracking Layer will maintain custody of the target while HBTSS will hand off fire-control quality targeting data to missile defense shooters, including GMD, Aegis, THAAD and, in the future, Space-based effectors.

One of the most pressing issues is to provide global coverage and avoid gaps in what terrestrial radars and the space satellites can monitor. If satellites sense a missile launch but then lose track of that missile, other satellites or radars need to receive handoff data or may have to reacquire the target. While the space architecture is tied into ground-based missile tracking radars, both segments have gaps that need to be filled in. As SPACECOM is the global sensor manager, it will be SPACECOM’s responsibility to advocate for filling in these gaps, and creating the demand signal for all services to field missile warning sensing capabilities. Tracking and reacquiring is becoming more complicated as adversaries develop low-flying and maneuverable missiles with lower heat signatures. Since current ground-based radars look up, low-flying cruise missiles are not tracked as well as ballistic missiles. Proliferation of tracking satellites in LEO and introducing the MEO backup constellation seem to be the Space Force answers to this problem.

Another challenge is discrimination of missile heat signatures against the background of the warm Earth’s surface. Space sensing technology must be developed that will better track missiles in flight. This technology is different from other efforts toward space-based surveillance, which look into cold space to find cold objects. While development is underway, if advancements in sensors do not keep up with the ambitious timelines for launch, DoD will not capitalize on the opportunity to improve.

A third challenge is providing timely indications of a launch to command centers around the world. SDA’s Transport Layer is envisioned as a constellation between 300 and 500 satellites in LEO, and aims to provide assured, resilient, low-latency data and connectivity worldwide. Further, the SWAC has embarked on a “Space Data Transport” design, which aims to route data completely through space and eventually reduce reliance on ground systems and vulnerable underground and undersea cables. Both efforts are considering software improvements and onboard processing that will recommend targeting solutions autonomously, then pass the recommendation directly to the missile defense system that has the greatest probability of kill via tactical data links.

At the top of Secretary Kendall’s list of Operational Imperatives is defining resilient and effective space architectures. While resilience can be approached in many ways, the Space Force must equip the joint force to protect and defend its on-orbit assets from kinetic and non-kinetic threats. We cannot wait for conflict, as adversaries are pushing limits daily in cyber and space. Unprotected assets in space reduce mission assurance in every other domain. To develop its future architectures, the Space Force has announced that it will absorb the Space Development Agency – currently under the DoD office for Research and Engineering – so that SDA, the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, and SSC will be “three equal entities able to provide different means to deliver systems,” according to Dr. Tournear. This consolidation of design and development organizations will give the Space Force a larger role in defining systems which directly support missile defense.

Space capability development, including how it interacts with missile defense systems, is being driven by the Space Force and guided by the DoD’s Joint Warfighting Concept, a classified series of documents that describe the future operating environment and how the joint force will operate in the future. A keystone effort derived from the JWC is Joint All Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, a construct that will define how the US connects sensors from all services into a single network. SWAC’s MW/MT and Data Transport designs directly support the JADC2 construct and will be the two primary drivers for upgrading space architectures to support global missile defense needs of today and the future.

US Space Command has a significant role as well. SPACECOM’s area of responsibility is infinite and interfaces with every other COCOM’s. SPACECOM must be a true global integrator both in operations and in creating a demand signal to acquire and posture sensors to support missile defense. All other COCOMs, and today especially INDOPACOM, NORTHCOM, and EUCOM, depend on SPACECOM to provide sensors that produce target information to missile defense shooters in their corner of the world. General Jim Dickinson, SPACECOM’s commander testified to the Senate Committee on Armed Services in March 2022 that “USSPACECOM is actively integrating non-traditional sensors such as the Army Navy Transportable Radar Surveillance – 2, Sea-Based X-Band Radar, and Aegis radar platforms.” He went on to explain that the Command’s top priority heading into FY23 is “improving the ability to provide domain safety, security, and sustainability,” which will go a long way toward mission assurance in all other domains. In addition to the US Joint Force, thirty allied nations also rely on missile warning data for their own defense. Recently Canada announced that it will join 27 other members of NATO, Australia, Japan and South Korea in the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) program.

We look to the Space Force and Space Command to advocate and develop robust architectures that will support the defense of our nation and our allies – from the ultimate strategic high ground.

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.