US develops satellite system to track hypersonic weapons

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States will spend $1.3 billion to develop advanced satellites capable of better tracking hypersonic missile threats, the Pentagon announced Monday, announcing two new contracts that will put the detection and tracking systems in orbit by 2025.

Derek Tournear, director of the Space Development Agency, said the contracts will provide 28 satellites, as the United States works to expand and dramatically improve its ability to counter growing threats from Russia and China.

Both countries have made progress in developing hypersonic missiles, which are harder to track and shoot down because they maneuver more in flight than conventional weapons that travel on predictable trajectories. Last year, China tested what US officials called a hypersonic missile, and Russia used these weapons in strikes during the war in Ukraine.

“Both Russia and China have developed and tested hypersonic glide vehicles – these advanced missiles that are extremely maneuverable,” Tournear told Pentagon reporters on Monday. “These satellites are specifically designed to tackle this next-generation version of threats so that we can detect and track these hypersonic maneuver vehicles and predict their point of impact.”

Additional funding for the program was provided by Congress specifically in response to concerns in the Indo-Pacific region, in response to China’s rapidly advancing military development.

Hypersonic weapons are defined as anything that travels above Mach 5, five times faster than the speed of sound. That’s about 3,800 mph (6,100 km/h). Intercontinental ballistic missiles far exceed this threshold but move in a predictable trajectory, allowing them to be intercepted.

Historically, Tournear said, the United States has not flown satellites designed to detect and track such maneuverable hypersonic weapons. Currently, he said, “we have limited capacity to do this tracking aspect.” He added, however, that “we clearly don’t have the capacity to follow up.”

The new satellites, he said, will allow the United States to detect the launch, track the hypersonic missile as it changes course, calculate where it is heading, and provide that data to forces that can launch. interceptors.

The contracts were awarded to teams led by L3Harris Technologies, Inc. of Melbourne, Florida, and Northrop Grumman Strategic Space Systems of Redondo Beach, California. L3Harris will produce 14 satellites at a cost of about $700 million, and Northrop will produce 14 at a cost of about $617 million. The total cost of the program, including launches and ground control and support, will be approximately $2.5 billion.

Tournear said the program represents a shift for the United States to a larger, overlapping satellite system. Rather than relying on larger, more expensive satellites that remain in orbit for 15 years or more, the United States will have a greater number of cheaper satellites that will be replaced roughly every five years.

One set, he said, would be in a lower orbit of around 1,000 kilometers, and a second set would be in a medium orbit of around 10,000 to 20,000 kilometers, providing a more resilient presence. He said the first 28 satellites would likely be followed by a second group of around 54.

Earlier this year, the US, UK and Australia announced they would work together to develop hypersonic missiles. The April announcement came amid growing concerns over China’s growing military assertiveness in the Pacific. Last October, US Army General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that China had conducted a test of a hypersonic weapon, calling it a “very significant event” that was “very worrying”.

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