Raytheon Urges Investment in Next-Gen Missile Warning Technology

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WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Air Force plans to request funding in 2013 for a pair of infrared missile warning satellites planned to launch toward the end of the decade, it should take the opportunity to restart its investment in a next-generation sensor package that could be smaller and less expensive to produce, a Raytheon official said June 7.

An infrared payload developed by El Segundo, Calif.-based Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems could enable the United States to pursue a disaggregated architecture for missile defense, potentially allowing U.S. allies to contribute to the system, said Tom McDonald, the company’s director of defense, civil and commercial space programs.

The Air Force in May launched its first Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) geosynchronous satellite, which had been delayed by nearly a decade with technical troubles. The spacecraft will continue the Defense Support Program’s 40-year history of providing hemisphere-scale warning of ballistic missile launches, plus support missile defense, technical intelligence and battlespace awareness. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., is under contract to deliver a total of four SBIRS spacecraft all planned to be on orbit by 2016. The infrared payloads, which feature scanning and staring sensors, are built by Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems of Azusa, Calif.

The Air Force in February told Congress that it plans to request initial funding in 2013 for the fifth and sixth SBIRS satellites that would launch around 2017 and 2018. If the Air Force increases its investment in new missile warning technologies to perhaps $100 million a year, the service could side step looming obsolescence issues and decrease the production cost of each SBIRS satellite, currently pegged at $1.3 billion, McDonald said in an interview.

“What we hope happens here is there is modest investment made in maturing the technologies in an on-orbit demonstration at a very attractive price point,” he said.

Raytheon was one of two firms that received funding for several years for a next-generation missile warning technology development program. The company in 2009 was issued a $46 million contract to fully develop and flight-qualify a staring-only infrared payload to potentially fly on a demonstration mission. But the contract was terminated just a few months later, and the sensor was shelved. The payload could be readied for flight in two to three years for about $50 million, McDonald said.

Part of the demonstration payload developed by the other firm, SAIC of McLean, Va., will be hosted on SES-2, a commercial telecommunications satellite planned for launch in August.

Raytheon has invested several million dollars of its own funding in the past couple years developing architecture options and algorithms for exploiting data from its sensor, capitalizing on its significant experience dealing with missile warning data in the classified realm, McDonald said. The modifications that would have to be made to the ground processing systems would be relatively minor and measured in millions of dollars, not hundreds of millions of dollars, he said.

“We’ve made sure in our architecture we’re not providing just a pipe of data coming down but we actually know how to compress the data and unpack it when it comes down in a format in which the existing systems can [exploit] with minor changes.”