With space emerging as a strategically important domain, the US is redoubling its efforts to establish a resilient missile detection and alert system to fortify the nation’s defenses.
While the Pentagon has invested in space-based missile tracking technologies since the Cold War-era, the rise of novel and pressing threats has heightened the urgency.
Intercontinental missiles launched by adversaries can reach the US mainland in as little as half an hour, making them one of the greatest military threats America faces. Next-gen missile warning and tracking systems are critical to the safety of our nation and our allies.
The emerging challenge
Traditional ballistics have a defined trajectory that is determined by physics. Once launched, unguided ballistics stay on course until they hit their target, making tracking relatively straightforward.
But the same can’t be said for hypersonic missiles, a new technology that poses a greater threat.
Enter hypersonic: The last couple of years have seen the emergence of hypersonic weapons, which travel faster than traditional ballistic missiles and change course in flight. This combination makes hypersonics harder to track with ground-based radar systems and Space-Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS), as you need continuous eyes on the missile to intercept it.
Though the technology is still in its infancy, adversaries are developing hypersonic missiles that could evade our current tracking architecture.
In response to these new threats, the White House began a push in 2019 for a renewed focus on space-based missile defense systems.
US Missile Warning:
The Pentagon is upgrading its eyes in space by building a robust multi-orbit missile warning and tracking satellite architecture. The Pentagon’s network of LEO, MEO, and GEO sats are designed to work in tandem to provide a robust and resilient system.
Pentagon’s GEO missile warning: Missiles are most visible to any tracking system at the moment of launch when they release a lot of heat. Missile warning systems use infrared and radar sensors to detect the heat signatures of missiles and send a warning signal.
- The US is upgrading the GEO satellite fleet of SBIRS to next-gen Overhead Persistent Infrared satellites (OPIR).
- The new infrared systems will be far more sensitive than older SBIRS and offer a faster download speed for data.
Enter Millennium: Millennium, a small satellite constellation prime, built and launched the Wide Field of View (WFOV) satellite in July 2022 as part of the drive to upgrade the US space-based missile warning system with more resilient systems.
The WFOV satellite is a tech demonstrator used to inform future OPIR tech and lower orbit missile tracking by testing different ways to collect and report data about missile launches. The satellite returned its initial “First Light” data in November 2022 and now collects several terabytes daily.
US Missile Tracking:
With emerging threats like hyperglide vehicles and space as a contested domain, LEO and MEO systems are essential to supporting a resilient, layered space architecture.
Pentagon’s LEO and MEO missile tracking: Along with missile warning, the Pentagon is building out its missile tracking constellation in next-gen lower orbit architectures. The new programs include:
- SDA in LEO: The Space Development Agency is deploying hundreds of missile defense satellites through its Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture.
Millennium is delivering the Missile Track Custody constellation for Space Systems Command. The missile tracking program, which consists of a constellation of small sats slated for launch in 2026, is designed for hypersonic missile tracking from MEO.
Allied governments taking notes: As the paradigm of warfare shifts and the global stage becomes even more complex, it’s evident that the US is not the only player in the arena that may consider strengthening its missile warning and tracking capabilities. Recognizing the profound implications of these advancements and potential threats, other allied nations may also consider setting up their missile warning and tracking constellations.