Pentagon Orders Hypersonic Missile Trackers Amid Russia, China Arms Race

The Pentagon has chosen two companies to build prototype sensors able to track hypersonic weapons as the U.S. seeks to expand both its offensive and defense hypersonic technology amid a nascent arms race with Russia and China.

The Missile Defense Agency this month awarded $122 million to L3Harris and $155 million to Northrop Grumman to work on their sensors, which will be able to track incoming hypersonic weapons from space.

The project is known as the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor, or HBTSS.

Hypersonic weapons pose an unprecedented threat. Unlike traditional ballistic missiles, hypersonic projectiles can maneuver in flight, making them more difficult to intercept.

They also fly at higher speeds—Mach 5 and above, or around 3,836 miles per hour—and flatter trajectories than traditional weapons, giving defenders a smaller window of interception.

The U.S. appears to be lagging behind Russia and China in hypersonic missile development.

Russia, especially—if President Vladimir Putin and his military officials are to be believed—have made great leaps, and two hypersonic weapons are already deployed with troops.

Putin, unveiling a host of weapons in 2018, described hypersonic weapons as "invincible" and claimed Russian advances would make existing ballistic missiles defunct.

The Pentagon is hoping that the HBTSS will be able to track hypersonic weapons better than existing sensors in geostationary orbit, used to track ballistic missiles. Hypersonic weapons are too dim to be effectively tracked, meaning a new solution is required.

The HBTSS will be a collection of satellite sensors in low Earth orbit, which will enable them to pick up the dim hypersonic weapons better than sensors stationed higher in the atmosphere.

This will mean a narrower field of vision, requiring the Pentagon to build a "constellation" composed of dozens of satellites.

The HBTSS will work with Space Defense Agency satellites. The SDA will monitor the hypersonic weapon's path and pass the information on to the HBTSS, which will then provide targeting data for defensive weapons to destroy the incoming projectile.

The Missile Defense Agency said the nature of hypersonic missiles "makes them challenging targets for our current missile defense system...HBTSS is needed, since we cannot populate the Earth and the oceans with terrestrial radars to meet this need."

"The 'birth-to-death' tracking that HBTSS can provide when integrated with terrestrial sensors will make it possible to maintain custody of missile threats from launch through intercept regardless of location," it added, according to Air Force Times.

The Missile Defense Agency contracts will see the prototypes through launch and early in-orbit testing. The agency wants the prototypes to "demonstrate the sensitivity and fire-control quality of service necessary to support both the emerging hypersonic threat kill chain and dim upper-stage ballistic missiles."

The U.S. is investing heavily in hypersonic weapons technology. Last year, former President Donald Trump's administration proposed a 23 percent increase in funding for hypersonic weapons.

The Army and Navy are currently working on a joint hypersonic weapon known as the Common-Hypersonic Glide Body. The prototype had its first successful flight in March, hitting within six inches of its target according to U.S. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy.

The Air Force has its own project—the Lockheed Martin's AGM-183A air-launched rapid-response weapon, also known as ARRW. The Air Force has completed the ARRW's early testing phase and is hoping to begin operational testing in October 2021.

Russian Kinzhal hypersonic missiles over Moscow
This file photo shows Russia's MiG-31 supersonic interceptor jets carrying hypersonic Kinzhal missiles fly over Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2018. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images/Getty