Defense contractor Lockheed Martin has secured yet another sizeable government contract aimed at countering the real and potential capability gaps between American space and missile technologies and those being developed in competitor states like Russia and China.
The day after the Air Force announced awarding Lockheed a second hypersonic missile development contract worth nearly an additional half-billion dollars; they released another announcement regarding the development of a new series of hardened satellites intended to offer a more resilient platform for identifying missile launches. Lockheed Martin will be awarded a whopping $2.9 billion to build three geosynchronous earth orbit space vehicles for that purpose, with two more polar orbit satellites also under development through Northrop Grumman.
The new satellites referred to as overhead persistent infrared satellites, or OPIR, will be tasked with scanning the globe for light signatures indicative of missile launches that could potentially threaten America or its allies. Early identification of these launches is essential to America’s missile defense apparatus, which relies on early identification and complex algorithms to quickly assess the missile’s trajectory, determine the level of threat it presents, and if needed, launch interceptors to engage. Even a short delay in the identification of a launch could set that entire timetable back too far to get kinetic interceptors on target before the offensive missile reaches its target.
However, despite America’s reliance on satellites already in orbit for this function, those platforms were designed and built for use in uncontested space, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the orbital area above our heads is anything but uncontested. Both Russian and Chinese military space branches have weapons in development that are intended to destroy satellites, but a more pressing concern in the short term are systems designed not to destroy, but just to interfere.
“Dazzling” a satellite, for instance, is the act of shining a ground-based laser directly on the sensor array of one of these OPIR satellites. China has already demonstrated their ability to do so on a number of American reconnaissance satellites, and while “dazzling” doesn’t cause any actual damage, it can temporarily blind the platform, making it unable to detect any missile launches until the laser has been disengaged. If a nation wanted to launch a nuclear strike on the United States, it wouldn’t necessarily need to destroy or even engage with American satellites in orbit as a result. Dazzling is just one of a number of potential ploys that can currently be used to interfere with satellite operations without involving any assets in space.
The Air Force now hopes to limit potential opponents’ abilities to interfere with the function of these satellites through the development of new hardened systems tasked with the same basic function. Although details pertaining to how Lockheed hopes to harden these systems are currently limited, it can be expected that the new satellites may possess greater maneuvering capabilities and more redundancy in integral systems, in case of a kinetic attack from a spacecraft like Russia’s recently launched “inspector” satellite.
The sensor payloads for both the Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman satellites will be sourced via a separate industry competition, though final assembly will remain in the hands of the two defense contractors.
These hardened missile defense satellites are expected to take to the skies by April of 2021, which is right around when Lockheed Martin is also expected to begin fielding their new hypersonic missile platforms – another technology America is hurriedly developing in order to keep pace with both Russian and Chinese efforts that have already been underway for years.