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Leaders Discuss Space-Based Sensors That Can Track Missiles

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The Space Development Agency and the Missile Defense Agency are collaborating on new space-related activities, including missile tracking and targeting.

Derek M. Tournear, SDA director; and Walter S. Chai, director of Space Sensors and director of the Missile Integration and Operations Center at the MDA, provided remarks at the Defense One Tech Summit yesterday.

A man participates in a virtual meeting.
Derek M. Tournear
Derek M. Tournear, director of the Space Development Agency, delivers remarks at the Defense One Tech Summit, from the Pentagon, June 22, 2021.
Photo By: Marine Corps Sgt. Taryn Escott
VIRIN: 210622-D-ZY556-1002M

There are three main missions that need to be done for missile defense in the sensing aspect, Tournear said.

Global coverage to detect missile launches from anywhere.
Tracking, to detect missiles as they maneuver.
Engagement of weapons systems against incoming missiles.
The SDA is focused on being able to do the warning and tracking aspect and is working very closely with MDA with their Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor program, he said.

"[MDA] is focused on the ability to actually close that final aspect of the kill chain and be able to do that engage on remote," he said. "And, so, we're working together so that there is a unified joint architecture moving forward." 

Tournear provided a number of examples where SDA and MDA are collaborating.

SDA and industry partners are building a high bandwidth, low latency communication network that will have a low probability of being jammed or intercepted, he said. That network will connect platforms at sea, air and land with space sensors, thereby enabling the warfighters.

Another endeavor, he said, is using laser communications between satellites for greater speed and efficiency.

Chai said the MDA is working closely with the SDA as well as the Space Force.

A man participates in a virtual meeting.
Walter S. Chai
Walter S. Chai, director of Space Sensors and director of the Missile Integration and Operations Center at the Missile Defense Agency, provides remarks at the Defense One Tech Summit, June 22, 2021.
Photo By: Screen capture
VIRIN: 210622-O-D0439-1001M

The MDA is working hard to not only build a more effective and resilient space-based system, but also to build it more cost effectively, he said. 

Regarding MDA's HBTSS program, he said that competitors, China and Russia, are advancing hypersonic weapons that can evade terrestrial-based radar by flying low and are highly maneuverable. That's why space-based sensors are so important.

The challenge for the MDA is tracking hypersonics or ballistic missiles using their heat signatures. However, that heat signature may be hard to track against the background of the climate. The other challenge is tracking a large number of incoming missiles simultaneously.

Both directors discussed their plans to launch and test hundreds of satellites that will form a mesh network in space beginning this year and continuing in the coming years. The space architecture should be operational by next year.

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