The Pentagon appears to be worried about Russia and China’s rapid progress in the domain of hypersonic weapons.
Keeping this in view, the US is seeking larger investments for research and development and to bolster its “hypersonic and ballistic tracking space sensor” program. The FY 2022 budget request includes $8.9 billion for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), according to the Defense Budget Overview.
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MDA has sought funds to develop “a hypersonic and ballistic tracking space sensor’. The weapon systems would be used to counter the increasing ballistic and hypersonic threats emanating from Russia and China.
Director of the MDA, Vice Admiral Jon Hill, said the organization seeks to invest in a new kind of space sensor to track and stop the hypersonic weapons traveling at speeds greater than those of sound, National Interest reported.
It also said, of the $8.9 billion budget, MDA would spend $7.2 billion (80 percent) on research and development.
Earlier this year, the MDA has selected Northrop Grumman and L3 Harris to each build a prototype sensor satellite. Each of these prototypes would be capable of effectively track hypersonic and ballistic missiles under MDA’s program, Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS).
The HBTSS is expected to replace the existing Space Tracking and Surveillance System, or the STSS.
In January 2021, Northrop Grumman was awarded a contract worth $155 million and another $121-million deal was signed with the L3 Harris. Both companies are expected to deliver the prototypes by July 2023.
The satellites are expected to be positioned in low-Earth orbits and will be able to produce ‘fire control’ data, which will in turn target an interceptor weapon to shoot the enemy missile.
The HBTSS satellites will form a part of a broader missile warning network being designed by the US. The program will also include wide-field-of-view missile-tracking satellites which are expected to be procured by the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency.
Biggest Challenge For The US?
The Pentagon believes that the US’ adversaries, especially China and Russia, are acquiring new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) systems.
Through its budget request, the MDA seeks to develop a regional hypersonic defense glide phase intercept capability. In this system, when a target approaches, the hypersonic glide weapon with its speed of descent can destroy its adversary without giving it a chance to respond.
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According to Vice Admiral Hill, this system can be used to support the defense requests in Guam in the Pacific theatre.
The Pentagon finds itself lacking in hypersonic missile defense capabilities. Chances are that the ground-based commanders may find it difficult to always track and detect the threat of a hypersonic missile traveling at a speed many times greater than the speed of sound.
While existing radars can detect non-hypersonic weapons, it is not the case with hypersonic weapons. Traveling at such high speeds, a hypersonic weapon moves from one radar opening to the next in such a short time, making it immensely difficult to track through coordinated radar systems.
A better chance of tracking the hypersonic weapons is by detecting these weapons from space, by allowing the interceptors to track the weapon more effectively.
‘Russia & China Weaponizing The Space’
National Interest quoted Lieutenant General JT Thompson, Commander, Space and Missile Centre, as saying that “almost all of our military capabilities depend upon space capabilities, and our adversaries are weaponizing space”.
Thompson believes that China is advancing rapidly on the fronts of Electronic warfare (EW) applications and defenses against anti-satellite weapons (ASAT).
In May, China reportedly launched an upgraded Long March 11A system. The system is expected to be capable of “sending 1.5 tons of payload to a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 700 kms, nearly four times the Long March 11s capacity”.
The Eurasian Times had reported on the first test of the AGM-183 A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) program. According to the US Air Force, the test missile had failed to complete its launch sequence. Both Russia and China are believed to have successfully conducted the tests.
The failure of this test was seen as a huge setback for the US at a time of increased global tensions. In its bid to outpace the US in the development of missile systems, China has invested heavily in test facilities and developing engineering expertise.
The communist nation is believed to have tested a road-mobile medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) — the DF17, which is capable of launching hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV). It has a range of 1,800 -2,500 kms. The DF-ZF with a range of 1,600 -2,400 km and a speed of Mach-Mach 10 is another HGV in China’s arsenal.
In another report, The Eurasian Times had mentioned the induction of the hypersonic missile system, Avangard by Russia. The Avangard was inducted by Russia in December 2019 and is expected to deliver both nuclear and conventional payloads, flying at a hypersonic speed of around 32,000 km per hour.
With its advanced maneuvering capabilities, it can traverse through the atmospheric layers making it difficult to be tracked by enemy air and ballistic missile defenses. Enhancing its ICBM capability, it is expected that Russia may acquire 13 launchers equipped with Yars and Avangard ICBMs in 2021.
The country boasts another hypersonic missile called, Kinzhal (or ‘Dagger’ in English). The nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile was fielded in December 2017, according to Defense News.
President Vladimir Putin once triumphantly declared that the Kinzhal can exceed 10 times the speed of sound, but some experts are skeptical about that claim.