Hyten: Hypersonic missile defense satellites a job for the Space Development Agency

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Hyten said it makes sense to design a prototype constellation and demonstrate it works before DoD invests billions of dollars in a major acquisition.

COLORADO SPRINGS — Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command and nominated to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, oversees operations involving some of the military’s most sensitive satellites that detect and track enemy missiles.

Hyten has been insistent that DoD needs a layer of satellites in lower orbits to track targets much closer to Earth than the existing missile warning constellation that operates from geostationary orbit. “That has to be a piece of the architecture,” Hyten told SpaceNews on Tuesday at the 35th Space Symposium.

“You can’t defend against something that you can’t see,” he said. DoD needs to build stronger defenses against emerging hypersonic missiles that are launched into space but then glide into the atmosphere and maneuver in unpredictable trajectories, said Hyten. That requires global coverage and the most efficient way to get that, he said, is from a large constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, he said. “You have to be very proliferated to have global coverage.”

The Missile Defense Agency has been studying options to deploy a sensor layer in space but there is no official Defense Department requirement to develop or build one. “Nobody is really looking at hypersonic sensing,” said Hyten. It’s been talked about but “nobody’s really looking at how do we do this.”

The job of designing a space sensor layer for hypersonic defense will be assigned to the newly created Space Development Agency, which has special authorities to acquire and test technologies with less red tape than traditional programs.

Hyten agrees with SDA Director Fred Kennedy that DoD should rapidly develop a space sensor constellation in LEO using commercially available technology and test it out before official requirements are written for a system. “Otherwise you could write a requirement for unobtainium,” he said. “And that’s the last thing we want to do. We want to write simple requirements.”

If Hyten is confirmed by the Senate as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — replacing current Vice Chairman Gen. Paul Selva — he would be taking over as leader of the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, the panel of four-star generals that approves military requirements for new systems.

Hyten often has criticized the requirements process as too rigid and slow to keep up with technological innovations. “We want requirements that give the industry flexibility for meeting them, and gives up multiple solutions,” he said. “That’s what we want to have. And you need to be informed by technology efforts first to do that.”

DoD has been slow to figure out how to leverage commercial space technologies like rockets and satellites, he said. “We really haven’t spent a whole lot of money and time exploring these alternative concepts.”

Hyten believes DoD should take more risks and try new capabilities in LEO, for example. Meanwhile, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson continues to raise concerns about the vulnerability of satellites in LEO.

It should not be binary choice between risk or innovation, he said. “Somewhere along the way, our country reached the point where risk was somehow bad and all the process that we’ve put in place for acquisitions are put in place to eliminate the opportunity for anything bad to happen. You can’t have a test that fails. You can’t have a program that fails. You can’t have anything that fails,” said Hyten. “And when you do that, you basically say, I won’t take any risk. And if you don’t take any risks, by definition, you will move very slowly. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Ideally, the space architecture is going to require a mix of orbits, some with many satellites, others with relatively few, he  said. “All those together can provide a more exquisite capability.” Adversaries would have a hard time taking down satellites in every orbit, Hyten said. “We need the ability to see, communicate, and also make it a problem for an adversary to deny that to us.”

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan is talking about the Space Development Agency “taking risk and moving forward trying new things,” Hyten said. The Air Force also is trying to do things in a different way. “Both are going to be part of the solution in the future and we have to make sure that we allow people to take risks and fail every once in a while.”

Hyten said he has studied LEO constellations for 30 years since he was an engineer. There’s promise in LEO concepts but nobody has proven or demonstrated they work for the military, he said. That could be done, as the SDA proposed, using commercial technology with some additional government investment. “You don’t have to build 500 sats to prove it, you have to prove that it can scale,” said Hyten. “We haven’t invested in those risky programs.”

As to whether hypersonic defense can be improved by a LEO constellation, Hyten said it has to be tried and see if it works.

There is merit in what SDA wants to do, he added. “If it works that would be a game changer, and if it doesn’t work, we will not have risked a huge investment,” he said. “Somebody has to prove these technologies.”