HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Sensors in space that can detect and track hypersonic missiles should be at the top of DoD’s wish list, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten said Aug. 11.

“I would like to have overhead sensors that see everything, characterize everything that goes on on this planet from a missile perspective, all the time, everywhere,” Hyten said in a speech at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium. 

Hyten, a career space and missile defense officer who grew up in Alabama, has been a regular keynoter at the SMD conference. This was his last appearance as a military leader as he is scheduled to retire in November. 

Advanced missiles now being developed by China fly at very fast speeds and maneuver in unpredictable directions so they are unlikely to be detected by current missile defense systems that were designed to track ballistic missiles. Hyten and other officials have called on DoD to deploy sensor satellites in low Earth orbit to provide global surveillance. 

Hyten, who previously was commander of U.S. Strategic Command, warned that the speed and maneuverability of modern hypersonic and advanced cruise missiles threaten to change the global balance of power and the deterrence equation as the United States does not have a way to counter them. 

“I would desperately desire a capability that will allow us to see these threats, globally, all the time, everywhere,” Hyten said. Currently that’s “unobtainium.”

DoD can build a space layer and a “space sensor architecture that can see the dimmer threats, that can see hypersonic maybe cruise missiles, certainly to be able to understand and characterize what those threats are,” Hyten said.

The problem in DoD has been the slow bureaucracy that for years has been studying the problem but not moved forward to field systems, he said. ‘That technology has been available for years now, and we continue to push that off and don’t go down that path.”

Some progress is being made however, said Hyten. He mentioned ongoing Missile Defense Agency and Space Development Agency programs to develop tracking satellites and deploy them in low Earth orbit. “We’re going after that problem,” said Hyten. “We have to get there and we should be able to get there quickly because that technology is not difficult. In this case, it’s a bureaucratic challenge more than anything else.”

Hyten said during this military career missile defense has been a major focus. “We have to make it work,” he said. “Why? because it is a critical military capability that is essential for the United States to be successful in any combat situation, period.”

DoD has fielded anti-missile systems “but we’re not near as far along as we should be,” he said. Most missile-defense sensors and interceptors that are deployed today were designed to counter tactical ballistic missiles and slow-flying air threats. ‘What do we do about hypersonics? What do we do about cruise missiles? What do we do about all those capabilities?”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...