WASHINGTON — The Pentagon announced it will start a new research project to figure out how to use sensors in space to shorten the timeline for targeting enemy missiles.

A solicitation was issued on Friday by the office of Mike Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, specifically the office of the director for advanced capabilities. A Broad Area Announcement invites contractors to submit ideas for a “Time-Sensitive Target Mission Payloads Demonstration.” The project will focus on how to use space-based payloads and information technology to strike “time-sensitive targets,” according to the BAA.

Griffin’s office will brief contractors March 1, issue a request for proposals March 4 and has set a March 15 deadline to submit white papers. Study contracts will be awarded in the following months and a contract for an actual demonstration could be awarded in the fall. Only U.S. contractors with secret clearances are allowed to participate.

An industry source noted that this solicitation came as a bit of a surprise because it was issued by the Washington Headquarters Services Acquisition Directorate, since Griffin does not have a contracting office. This is the type of technology effort that would be expected to be led by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or the Missile Defense Agency. But it is being run by the undersecretary for R&E, leading to speculation that the project will be assigned to a new Space Development Agency that the Pentagon plans to establish under Griffin’s oversight.

This BAA comes on the heels of the release of the Trump administration’s Missile Defense Review, which calls for the Pentagon to study and prototype technologies to defeat ballistic or other missile threats before they are launched, or “left of launch.”

“Threats posed by missile delivery systems are likely to continue to increase and grow more complex,” said the BAA. “Adversary missile systems are becoming more mobile, survivable, reliable and accurate.” DoD believes that deterrence is the preferred strategy to prevent missile attack but a “broader approach” is needed to fight back when deterrence fails. The United States should be prepared to degrade, disrupt or destroy an adversary’s missiles before they are launched, said the BAA. If adversaries’ missiles can be taken out before they are launched, it reduces the number of targets that would have to be intercepted in flight.

The ability to hit targets left of launch will require space-based technologies, the BAA said. The Pentagon wants space sensors that can be counted on to work even in adverse conditions like solar activity, radiation belts and orbital debris. These payloads would “extract target information in the presence of clutter and noise; process internal and external information in real time; operate within harsh physical and thermal environmental conditions.”

DoD also wants these space sensors to be connected to an artificial brain that autonomously identifies targets and minimizes the “kill chain,” or the time it takes to identify and shoot down a target. The challenge for contractors is to figure out how to transmit and process information from sensors in space to interceptor missile batteries on the ground or at sea with minimal latency.

The payloads demonstration that DoD is pursuing in some ways overlaps with efforts already underway at DARPA, under the Blackjack project, and at MDA, which is studying how to develop a layer of sensors in space to detect and track hypersonic glide vehicles. The industry source said this new project is likely to supplement other ongoing initiatives and could bring in fresh ideas that Griffin believes are needed to improve the performance and shorten the development schedule of missile defense systems.

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...