The Air Force has used a series of experiments to learn more about its missile warning capabilities, including the CHIRP hosted payload, pictured above, and the Wide Field of View Testbed, which the service recently delayed. Credit: SES

Commercial Approach Gives Kill Assessment Program Its Best Chance To Succeed

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s budget blueprint for 2016 contained a refreshing surprise: a $22 million request to field a space-based network of commercially hosted sensors that would determine whether or not incoming missiles have been successfully intercepted.

Operating aboard commercial satellites in geostationary orbit, the Spacebased Kill Assessment, or SKA, sensors would help eliminate the uncertainty that otherwise might force the MDA to needlessly expend interceptors on targets that have already been destroyed. This also would allow the MDA to concentrate its tracking resources on missiles that are still a threat.

The experimental program was tucked, without fanfare, into the MDA’s budget request, which was released in February. U.S. Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, the MDA’s director, drew attention to the effort in congressional testimony March 19, characterizing timely kill assessment as “vitally important” to the agency’s mission.

The SKA project appears to have been inspired by the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, or CHIRP, mission, the U.S. Air Force’s pioneering program that saw an experimental missile-warning sensor launched aboard a commercial telecommunications satellite in 2011. The CHIRP sensor successfully observed numerous launches before being decommissioned at the end of 2013.

Somewhat ironically, the Air Force has yet to follow up on its CHIRP success. Although service officials took the initiative to create a contracting vehicle to facilitate government-wide use of hosted payloads, they have acknowledged that it could be three or more years before they actually use it. To date, NASA has been the sole adopter of the Hosted Payload Solutions contract.

It unclear whether the MDA intends to use the Air Force contracting vehicle for SKA, although that would make sense. The service has done a great service by streamlining and removing the guesswork from the hosted payload process — the MDA has little to gain by reinventing the wheel.

Credit: MDA
The MDA’s now-defunct Precision Tracking Space System was a proposed constellation of low-orbiting missile tracking satellites. Credit: MDA

To date, the SKA effort has been funded with money left over from the MDA’s now-defunct Precision Tracking Space System, which was a proposed constellation of low-orbiting missile tracking satellites. The PTSS was the latest iteration of a program initially proposed in the 1990s, and if the history was any indication, and given its likely multibillion-dollar price tag, it had a near-zero chance of becoming real.

Through the hosted payload approach, the MDA has given SKA a better-than-fighting chance to succeed. Also encouraging is the MDA’s plan to use commercially available technologies to develop the SKA sensors and interfaces, thereby avoiding what otherwise likely would be a fair amount of research and development work.

Moreover, in recognition of the fact that commercial satellite programs march to their own timetables — commercial operators do not delay launch campaigns to accommodate late-arriving hosted payloads — the MDA has placed a strong emphasis on schedule discipline, which has the added benefit of controlling costs.

Already MDA has moved remarkably quickly — if extremely quietly — on this SKA activity: Agency officials developed and finalized the approach in February and March of 2014; won approval from the senior leadership the following April; and successfully mated key sensor components to a simulated host satellite in September, according to budget documents. In 2016, the agency hopes to complete “assembly, integration and test of the sensor payloads with the host satellites,” among other activities, the documents say.

The schedule is aggressive, to be sure. The good news is that commercial geostationary satellites typically are launched at a rate of more than 20 a year, meaning the market eventually should be able accommodate the inevitable hiccups in SKA sensor development.

A willingness to innovate is no guarantor of success, of course, but MDA officials are to be commended for seeking to leverage commercial capabilities to the extent possible on the SKA project. Had they attempted to run it as a traditional government procurement, it almost certainly would have gone the way of the PTSS program.