WASHINGTON — Congress increased the Missile Defense Agency’s budget by $130 million to fund a new satellite constellation capable of tracking hypersonic weapons.
A satellites in low Earth orbit will provide targeting data for hypersonic weapons that are dimmer than traditional ballistics and can maneuver in flight, plugging a massive hole in the U.S. missile warning architecture.
Lawmakers, who approved the appropriations package Dec. 21 by a majority wide enough to overcome a veto hinted at by President Donald Trump, had expressed concern throughout the year that the agency’s budget does not include any funding to develop the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS). While MDA leadership did ask Congress to fund the constellation, seeking $108 million for HBTSS in its unfunded priority list, legislators communicated their confusion about why such a high priority program was not included in the agency’s actual budget request.
“In particular, ongoing acquisition programs that were identified as high priority within MDA’s architecture as recently as one year ago, such as the development of a space sensor for the tracking of hypersonic threats and ballistic missiles ... have been removed from MDA’ s budget, or underwent significant funding reductions,” lawmakers wrote in comments on the plan. “The inconsistencies are concerning.”
The $130 million budget addition for the project includes a $10 million transfer from the Space Development Agency.
The legislation also appears to resolve some tension between the Pentagon and Congress over which agency should lead HBTSS development, a disagreement ongoing since 2019.
Lawmakers seemed to settle the debate with a mandate that MDA serve as the lead agency on the effort in the fiscal 2020 defense policy legislation. But the issue was revived earlier this year when then-Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin reportedly decided to place HBTSS funding under the Space Development Agency’s (SDA) budget request. The MDA director’s testimony that his agency was still in charge of HBTSS at a March hearing did little to assuage lawmakers’ frustration over the move, and they ultimately threatened to remove MDA from Griffin’s portfolio.
The source of the confusion seemingly comes from HBTSS’ place within the missile warning enterprise. While the program is ostensibly owned by MDA, it is just one part of a hypersonic detection and tracking solution being built into the National Defense Space Architecture (NDSA), a constellation being developed by SDA that will eventually be made up of hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit.
The constellation will include its own wide-field-of-view tracking layer satellites that will initially detect hypersonic threats. As threats come into and leave the view of individual satellites, custody of the threat will pass from satellite to satellite via an on-orbit mesh network. Ultimately, custody will land with an HBTSS, which has a more sensitive medium-field-of-view sensor that can create the targeting data needed to destroy the threat.
Due to HBTSS’ relationship with SDA’s architecture, the White House argued throughout 2019 that it was too early to put a single agency in charge of the program. Lawmakers seemed to put the issue to rest by placing MDA in charge, but Griffin’s reported move to shift some oversight back to SDA revived frustrations.
Griffin’s view, however, may have won out in the end. The newly passed fiscal 2021 appropriations bill states that SDA and MDA “will share responsibility for developing and deploying the HBTSS architecture and constellation under a joint memorandum of agreement that defines each agency’s roles and responsibilities.”
That isn’t to say Congress doesn’t want more clarification. The legislation calls on the agencies to submit a comprehensive acquisition strategy for HBTSS to Congress, including all components of the architecture, cost estimates, integrated test plans and more.
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.