HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — While the Missile Defense Agency hit the pause button on its effort to bring a defensive hypersonic weapon online, it’s now ready to move forward and is engaging industry in the first phase of the effort.
“We’ve got some great feedback coming from industry, it is something that can be done, and we shouldn’t be afraid to go do it,” Vice Adm. Jon Hill, MDA director, told Defense News Aug. 12 at the SMD Symposium here, “and so we’re taking that on.”
Just a year ago, MDA had a different answer on where it was going with hypersonic defense, focusing on solutions under development in the science and technology phase, Hill said.
But after taking a step back and assessing the U.S. ballistic missile defense capability, the agency realized it already had some means to tackle hypersonic weapons using such sea-based assets as a Navy Carrier Strike Group with the ability to engage high-speed maneuvering threats during the terminal phase of flight.
The Sea-Based X-Band Terminal is another example of a current capability that can track hypersonic threats in the terminal phase, he noted.
The Aegis ship, which boasts launch-on-remote weaponry, is capable of seeing hypersonic weapons in the battlespace because, “remember, they’re not very high,” Hill said. “They are around 70 kilometers.”
Future efforts already scheduled to come online are systems like the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS), a satellite that will be placed in low-earth orbit to spot hypersonic missiles in flight, and the SPY-6 radar will further increase the ability to track hypersonic threats, Hill added.
The agency decided it would make the most sense to focus on taking out hypersonic weapons in the glide phase of flight where they are most vulnerable, Hill said.
MDA then assessed current and possible capability and concepts to be able to detect, track and intercept a hypersonic weapon in that glide phase.
The agency studied data from adversaries’ systems. “Our adversaries are constantly flying these things and we are collecting that data with the existing sensor architecture,” Hill said. “We were pulling that data down and we could run it through our high fidelity systems models.”
Taking that data, MDA asked, “What sort of material do we need on the seekers? What sort of divert capability do we need? Do we use a fragmentation warhead or do we want to do hit-to-kill in the glide phase because it’s a different battle? It’s a different environment,” Hill said.
MDA has discovered it can use the existing booster stacks and can focus on developing a front-end for an interceptor, Hill said.
What’s missing now is the weapon, he noted. The systems that exist now, like the SM-3 interceptor, which is designed to operate in space, and the SM-6, that is designed to operate in the atmosphere, “doesn’t get you there.”
Armed with the new strategy, the agency came out with a solicitation to industry asking for white papers on solutions for its Glide Phase Interceptor, or GPI, in April.
While the MDA is still doing risk reduction for more exquisite capabilities to be brought online later, Hill said, “from a regional perspective, we can go after this now.”
The agency will first focus on providing a capability to the Navy, and “if this is successful,” Hill said, “we can move it to the land-based battery to protect other things against that sort of hypersonic threat.”
Hill could not elaborate on a timeline for fielding a glide phase interceptor, but said he expected to conduct a systems requirements review later this year and would choose industry teams to work on development.
And then there’s the matter of securing future funding, which is yet to be determined but will also influence the effort’s timeline, according to Hill.
During a presentation at the SMD Symposium, Hill played a short video that described how a GPI would work as part of a multi-layered hypersonic defensive capability.
In the scenario, an enemy launched four hypersonic vehicles in succession. The HBTSS detects the launch and the first, second and third stages of separation from the booster and then relays that information to the Ballistic Missile Defense System Overhead Persistent Infrared Architecture, or BOA.
BOA uses real-time data from HBTSS to create a track of the hypersonic glide vehicle. Then an Aegis ship receives fire control quality data from BOA and the Command Control Battle Management Communications system, or C2BMC, through satellite communication.
Aegis then uses its remote tracking and engage-on-remote capability to launch the GPI, capable of flying faster and with more agility than the threat, taking out the hypersonic glide vehicle, the idea goes.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.