COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — U.S. Space Force leaders say the missile warning and tracking architecture supported in the service’s fiscal 2023 budget request is a “bridging strategy” — a way to maintain existing programs in a critical mission area as new capabilities are developed.
The service laid out that strategy in late March, requesting $3.4 billion — about $1 billion more than Congress appropriated in fiscal 2022 — to keep the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared System satellites and ground segment on track. The request also proposed another $1.2 billion to continue developing systems to track hypersonic missiles from low and medium Earth orbits and ensure the associated ground capabilities are aligned with the satellite work.
Speaking with reporters earlier this month during the Space Symposium, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond said the plan is designed to give the service the stability of the traditional OPIR capabilities as well as the flexibility to launch and test new systems as part of a more diverse architecture.
“It’s not like the architectures that we have today that are one-off, handmade wooden shoes that are expensive and not easy to defend and last a really long time,” Raymond said. “I think it’d be fair to say that we don’t have the luxury of going out to the world and saying we’re going to turn off all of these capabilities and we’ll come back in a few years with a bunch of new capabilities. You have to have a bridging strategy.”
Kendall added that as the threat matures and the Space Force rethinks its tactical response to those threats, “I think we’ll have to make some changes in the future.” But for now, he said, the service needs funding to modernize today’s systems and experiment for the future all at once.
Col. Brian Denaro, program executive officer for space sensing at Space Systems Command, told C4ISRNET in an interview that approach is needed to ensure there are no capability gaps during the transition to a more resilient architecture.
“As we work through that over the next year, year plus, we’re going to continue to evaluate our way forward,” he said. “Right now, what is funded in the budget is what we think is the smartest way and the most risk-informed way to making sure that we guarantee that capability.”
The near-term parts of that “way forward” were established last fall through the Space Force’s Space Warfighting Analysis Center, which brought together SSC, the Space Development Agency and the Missile Defense Agency to hash out a future architecture. The service briefed it to industry in November and, according to Denaro, immediately started working with the requirements community “in earnest.”
The Space Force’s program integration council — which includes officials from SSC, the National Reconnaissance Office, MDA, the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office and the Space RCO – then reviewed those requirements and recommended the architecture to the space acquisition council earlier this year. As part of that recommendation, Denaro said, SSC recommended the creation of a combined program office to execute the requirements.
The council approved the new program office, which includes SSC, SDA and MDA. Denaro said the group has already held its first summit and is now in the process of developing a memorandum of agreement that will “codify and solidify the arrangement.”
“What we’re looking to do is really deeply integrate these teams so there’s no daylight between us,” he said. “And that will involve exchanging personnel to make sure that we have SDA people embedded in our organization and vice versa at SDA and with MDA.”
Denaro said organizational integration is particularly important for the ground segment. The Space Force is currently developing the Future Operationally Resilient Ground Evolution system, FORGE, to provide command-and-control and mission processing for Next-Gen OPIR satellites, but the plan is for the system to be provide a centralized function for the entire architecture.
“That’s going to require some very tight ground integration to enable us to make sure we meet those timelines,” he said. “That’s the reason for really working closely with SDA and MDA, and that’s what drove us to this organizational construct to build a combined program office because of the timelines that we know are necessary. All of this new data coming in has to be correlated and has to be distributed in a very fast timeline.”
Raytheon was awarded a $197 million contract in early 2020 to develop FORGE.
For the LEO leg of the architecture, which falls largely in the purview of the Space Development Agency, the next year involves gearing up for its first tracking layer launch, which is slated for 2023. That Tranche 0 mission includes eight wide-field-of-view satellites — four built by L3Harris and four by SpaceX.
SDA plans to award contracts for its Tranche 1 tracking layer in June, which will include at least 28 satellites expected to launch in 2025. The agency’s plan is to launch new capability every two years, repopulating the constellation with new technology.
Also part of the LEO architecture is the Missile Defense Agency’s Hypersonic Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor program, which will consist of more sensitive medium-field-of-view sensors that can create targeting data for a missile intercept. L3Harris and Northrop Grumman are on contract to develop prototypes for HBTSS and both companies completed critical design reviews for their satellites last year.
HBTSS satellites are slated for launch in 2023, and Northrop Grumman recently told C4ISRNET it will be ready to ship its satellite in the first quarter of that calendar year.
SSC is leading the efforts in MEO, which right now are closely linked with the outcome of an ongoing Missile Track Custody Prototype program. The Space Force in 2021 chose Raytheon and Millennium Space Systems to design digital models of infrared sensors to help the service determine their effectiveness in detecting and tracking missiles.
Denaro said SSC is in the process of finishing its strategy for the MEO constellation and hopes to have that completed by the end of this year. Right now, the thought is to model its MEO delivery cadence on SDA’s LEO plan — launching “epochs” instead of “tranches” at a regular pace.
“We’re going to learn from each iteration and then we’ll re-evaluate, ‘How is the architecture working? Are we getting the performance we expected? How is that working relative to the other layers,’” he said.
Denaro said he expects Raytheon and Millennium to complete their critical design reviews for the digital prototypes next year, noting the service hasn’t determined whether it will field designs from more than one vendor.
In GEO and Polar orbits, SSC will retain oversight of the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared Program, which includes three Lockheed-Martin built GEO satellites and two Northrop-built polar satellites. Lockheed’s first GEO satellite will launch in 2025 and Northrop’s first polar satellite in 2027, though company officials have said that date could be accelerated.
Those first five satellites make up Block 0 of the Next-Gen OPIR program, the successor to the current Space-Based Infrared System. Prior to the SWAC’s force design work last year, the Space Force had planned to build out the architecture as part of a second development block. Asked if the service was planning for future phases of the program, Denaro said, “I can’t speak to any blocks beyond Block 0 at this point.”
“We’re continuing to build out Next-Gen OPIR Block 0, and we’ll continue to field that on the timeline that’s required to get that on orbit,” he said. “That is a fundamental element of missile warning for this entire architecture, and it is that unblinking eye that will provide missile warning 24/7 all across the globe.”
The service is also planning to launch a wide-field-of-view demonstration satellite to GEO, which was originally intended to inform the future Next-Gen OPIR architecture. The WFOV Testbed satellite was built by Millennium and its advanced missile warning staring sensor was developed by L3Harris. The satellite was expected to launch this spring but has been delayed. The Space Force has not said why the mission is on hold, but Denaro said the service is eager to have the satellite on orbit.
“We’ll get to not just explore with the new technology and the new focal plane, but also some new algorithms and processes for evaluating the data, deciphering the data,” he said. “And that will allow us to not just look at missile warning, but also missile tracking sort of capabilities and evaluate how that can be applied to proliferated LEO and MEO.”
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET's space and emerging technology reporter. She previously covered the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force for Inside Defense.