COLORADO SPRINGS — With China and Russia embracing hypersonic weapons capable of evading U.S. missile shields, the Pentagon is spending billions of dollars on infrared sensor satellites to counter the threat. Kelle Wendling, the new president of L3Harris Technologies’ Space Systems sector, says U.S. programs are not moving as fast as they could be.
“If we are going to take 10 or 12 years to catch up, we’ll be putting irrelevant capability on orbit, and that’s not where we want to be,” Wendling told SpaceNews.
L3Harris, a $17 billion defense contractor, is one of the U.S. government’s major suppliers of infrared sensors used in weather and environmental satellites, a technology that the company spent years adapting for missile detection. It is currently producing ballistic and hypersonic missile-tracking satellites for the Space Development Agency and the Missile Defense Agency.
SDA’s first batch of eight sensor satellites – four from L3Harris and four from SpaceX – are projected to launch in early 2023. MDA in late 2023 will be launching two prototype infrared satellites – one from L3Harris and one from Northrop Grumman – to conduct experiments.
Wendling has worked at L3Harris for more than two decades and in January took over as head of the company’s national security space business, a sector within L3Harris Space & Airborne Systems. She said the urgency of the hypersonic missile threat calls for DoD and the defense industry to adjust their risk tolerance and take a page from the commercial space sector.
Major commercial space players like SpaceX “are really changing how we acquire and deliver capabilities, and they have a little bit higher tolerance for risk than we do,” she said. “Not only that, but they are pushing down costs. So we need to adapt.”
The technological risk in developing satellites to detect and track hypersonic missiles is significant because these are sophisticated weapons that can pivot, glide and maneuver, Wendling said. “And they fly at a lower altitude which makes it incredibly difficult because they’re not as easy to pick out from the clutter.”
The industry has developed increasingly sophisticated infrared sensing technology, but “we need to move quickly and field something” given the urgency of the threat, she said. “The challenge is how can we change how we do acquisition, development, integration, testing and deployment so that we can get through the cycle faster?”
“We’ve had some interesting dialogue with the customer about how some of the commercial players approach things,” Wendling said.
In commercial space, “some are willing to change their software very close to launch, and that would make us very, very nervous,” she added. “So there needs to be a discussion amongst ourselves and our customers about what risk tolerance we are willing to take.”
The missile-tracking satellites that L3Harris is developing for DoD are being tested in labs and “we feel like this capability can be executed from space,” said Wendling. But things don’t always work out exactly as planned in the space environment, she noted. In DoD acquisitions, any type of technical setback can derail a program. To avoid such an outcome, “we should have a conversation not just about the design and development but about how we recover if something doesn’t work.”
“We have to start pivoting to a more agile approach, and I know that word is overused but we need a more agile environment for us to deploy capabilities,” Wendling said.