War in Ukraine underscores need for missile defense upgrade

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COLORADO SPRINGS – The war in Ukraine is demonstrating the rapid pace of change in modern warfare and underscoring the need for enhanced missile defense capabilities, Derek Tournear, director of the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency, said April 6 at the Space Symposium here.

“We have seen some hypersonics deployed over Ukraine,” Tournear said. Once it’s in place, SDA’s missile Tracking Layer “would allow you to detect them and track them,” he said.

In addition, SDA’s communications or Transport Layer “will have connectivity directly to the warfighter so that not only can we warn people about where that missile is going, but we can actually send those data down directly to an interceptor so that we can engage and remove the threat,” Tournear said.

Current Defense Department missile defense satellites in geostationary and highly elliptical orbits are designed to spot ballistic missiles. Once sensors note the path of ballistic missiles, they can determine their impact point based on the ballistic trajectory.

“That worked great for many decades,” Tournear said. “Well, now we’re in a different realm.”

The challenge today is detecting missiles after the booster rocket fires because “those systems actually maneuver, meaning that they can change their impact point dramatically,” Tournear said. “And so that is requiring us to take a whole different approach to being able to detect and track these systems.”

Another challenge for missile defense is communications.

“Right now, we have tactical data links that typically work over a 300 nautical mile area,” Tournear said. “What drove this architecture was defense against the Soviet Union coming across the Fulda Gap in Europe.”

Instead, SDA is developing a network that can pass data on hypersonic glide vehicles or any other type of targeting data around the world.

“We would enable those data to go over our Transport Layer and then be sent down directly via the existing tactical data links that are already in place,” Tournear said. Instead of regional communications, the network will offer global, low-latency connectivity, he added.

SDA’s Tranche 0 constellation of 20 communications and eight missile-tracking satellites is scheduled to launch next year, Tournear said.

Congress, recognizing the advanced missile threat, added $550 million to SDA’s 2022 budget “to get that tracking for the missile detection layer up as soon as possible,” Tournear said. “Because of that funding, we will be able to launch that Tranche One Tracking Layer starting in May of 2025.”

SDA is focused on a spiral development strategy. Every two years, the agency plans to upgrade its technology.

To improve the accuracy of missile tracking, SDA is closely following a Missile Defense Agency technology demonstration scheduled for March 2023.

If the demonstration is successful, SDA would fold the technology into its Tracking Layer.

“Maybe we’ll fly another couple in our Tranche One to show how it fits in with the overall architecture, but certainly in Tranche Two,” Tournear said. “We would want to have a mixture of what we call our wide field of view that does the missile warning, missile tracking and then medium field of view based on those MDA designs.”