Lots of cheap satellites in low-earth orbit may not be enough to protect against Chinese and Russian hypersonic weapons, so the U.S. should broaden its missile-defense strategy by adding a variety of sensors–including drones, aircraft, and higher-orbit satellites, according to a new report from CSIS.
Despite the Pentagon’s launch of several constellations in recent years, today’s highly maneuverable hypersonics remain very difficult to track, especially across large bodies of water such as the South China Sea, one of the report’s authors said Monday.
“The problem of tracking hypersonic missiles is complicated by the fact that they are smaller than pixels. The targets are smaller than pixels that were used to image them. Their signature is therefore diluted by the surrounding environment. The equator is not covered as densely. We get it near the poles.”
Additionally, putting too many satellites in low-earth orbit means increased risk of space debris.
“In the past year, the amount of collision-avoidance maneuvers that needed to happen with the Starlink constellation were an order of magnitude greater than they were in the past five years combined,” Dahlgren said.
Pricey low-earth orbiting satellites can also be affected by radiation fields created from nuclear tests, a threat that could wipe out Pentagon sensing capabilities with just one test.
Dahlgren said some of those coverage gaps could be resolved by adding just eight more satellites in the Middle Earth Orbit altitude, 1,243 to 22,300 miles up.
The Space Development Agency, which is in charge of tracking, continues to look for new ways to fill coverage gaps even though it has more satellites orbiting at low earth orbit. Col. Alexander Rasmussen said that the Space Development Agency will continue to do so, despite the fact they are adding to their LEO fleet.
“We’re absolutely trying to get after and take advantage of the entire community in terms of what is needed. Ultimately, we want to provide multiple sensors looking at any point on the globe at any given time,” he said.
That means finding new ways to use satellites already in orbit, and at other tools, such as fusing data from satellites together better.
The 2024 National Defense Authorization Act includes $225 million to accelerate the Glide Phase Interceptor (missile) program to shoot down hypersonic missiles.
And Congress interest in new tools and tactics to counter hypersonic threat will grow next year. According to Ryan Tully of the House Committee on Armed Services, an Republican Staffer. “What you’re seeing actually in Ukraine, right now, we’re gonna have Patriots going up against certain missiles with hypersonic capabilities. He said that the threat is here and, based on our understanding, this issue has more to do with resources than technology.
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