Report to Congress on Hypersonic Missile Defense

May 3, 2023 6:37 PM

The following is the May 2, 2023, Congressional Research Service In Focus report, Hypersonic Missile Defense: Issues for Congress.

From the report

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and Space Development Agency (SDA) are currently developing elements of a hypersonic missile defense system to defend against hypersonic weapons and other emerging missile threats. These elements include the tracking and transport layers of the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture (PWSA) and various interceptor programs. As MDA and SDA continue to develop these systems, Congress may consider implications for oversight and defense authorizations and appropriations.

Hypersonic weapons, like ballistic missiles, fly at speeds of at least Mach 5, or roughly 1 mile per second. Unlike ballistic missiles, hypersonic weapons do not follow a ballistic trajectory and can maneuver en route to their target. Russia reportedly fielded its first hypersonic weapons in December 2019, while some experts believe that China fielded hypersonic weapons as early as 2020. The United States is not expected to field hypersonic weapons until the end of FY2023.

The maneuverability and low flight altitude of hypersonic weapons could challenge existing detection and defense systems. For example, most terrestrial-based radars cannot detect hypersonic weapons until late in the weapon’s flight due to line-of-sight limitations of radar detection. This leaves minimal time for a defender to launch interceptors that could neutralize an inbound weapon.

U.S. defense officials have stated that both existing terrestrial- and space-based sensor architectures are insufficient to detect and track hypersonic weapons; former Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin has noted that “hypersonic targets are 10 to 20 times dimmer than what the U.S. normally tracks by satellites in geostationary orbit.”

Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture SDA developed the PWSA, formerly known as the National Defense Space Architecture, to “unify and integrate next generation capabilities across [the Department of Defense (DOD)] and industry.” The PWSA aims to be a “single, coherent proliferated space architecture with seven layers,” which include the data tracking and transport layers depicted in Figure 2 and discussed below. Other layers include the custody layer to support the targeting of mobile ground assets; the battle management layer to provide space-based command and control; the navigation layer to provide “alternate positioning, navigation, and timing for potential GPS-denied environments”; the deterrence layer to detect potentially hostile actions in deep space; and the support layer to facilitate satellite operations for the other PWSA layers. Once fully fielded, the PWSA is to include 550 satellites and provide full global coverage.

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