U.S. radars are unable to track Chinese and Russian high-speed missiles until late in their flight, even as new systems are being developed as part of the Pentagon‘s accelerated hypersonic missile defense program, according to a congressional report.
The Congressional Research Service report said that the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency and Space Development Agency are working on parts of a hypersonic missile defense system that could be used to stop the missiles, in part because current systems are inadequate for the job.
“U.S. defense officials have stated that both existing terrestrial- and space-based sensor architectures are insufficient to detect and track hypersonic weapons,” the Oct. 3 report states.
For geostationary satellite sensors, hypersonic targets are 10 to 20 times harder to detect than conventional ballistic missiles, which travel in more predictable trajectories, the report said.
Hypersonic missiles travel at speeds greater than 1 mile per second. Current U.S. space and ground radar systems are unable to detect the missiles until late in flight, making an interception with anti-missile systems difficult.
Unlike ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles — either gliders or powered — travel along the edge of the atmosphere and can maneuver in flight to avoid defenses.
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“The maneuverability and low flight altitude of hypersonic weapons could challenge existing detection and defense systems,” the report said.
To meet the challenge, the Pentagon is working on a network of 550 satellites as part of a national defense space architecture in seven layers of altitude, one of which will seek to spot high-speed missiles.
The Space Development Agency (SDA) is building a high-altitude portion of the $581 million program that will include wide field-of-view satellites called the tracking layer. This layer will provide global indications, warning, tracking and targeting of advanced missiles, including hypersonic missiles, the report said.
Along with the new tracking layer, the Missile Defense Agency is the lead agency in building a hypersonic and ballistic tracking space sensor.
The report also states that “various interceptor programs” are underway for attacking enemy hypersonic missiles, including interceptor missiles, hypervelocity projectiles, directed-energy weapons and electronic attack systems.
An MDA plan for an interceptor called the “hypersonic defense regional glide phase weapons system” could not be developed until the 2030s and was shelved in favor of weapons that could be deployed more quickly.
The United States is trailing both China and Russia in building hypersonic weapons. The Defense Department has made closing the gap a priority, requesting $4.7 billion for the program in fiscal 2023.
The weapons are part of the military’s program called “prompt global strike” that, when fielded, will be able to attack targets around the world in 30 minutes or less.
Unlike Chinese and Russian hypersonic weapons, U.S. high-speed missiles will not be armed with nuclear warheads.
China has deployed the DF-17 hypersonic missile and is working on another system called the Xing Kong-2, a nuclear-capable hypersonic vehicle prototype. Beijing also conducted a test of a space-based hypersonic missile as part of a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS) with a global strike capability that is difficult to detect.
Russian hypersonic missiles include two weapons programs — the Avangard and Zircon. Moscow has deployed the Kinzhal (Dagger), a maneuvering air-launched ballistic missile.
Recent U.S. defense authorization laws require the Pentagon to develop hypersonic and ballistic space sensors and to begin on-orbit testing by the end of 2023.