Space Force

Pentagon’s next-gen missile-tracking effort moves ahead—for now

Three firms have been picked to build 54 satellites, but plans depend on funds in the still-unpassed 2024 budget.

The Pentagon has picked the builders of a big chunk of its next-gen missile-tracking satellites, but the effort to detect Chinese and Russian hypersonic missiles depends on funds in the not-yet-passed 2024 defense budget.

L3Harris, Lockheed Martin, and Sierra Space will build 18 satellites each for the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture, with awards totaling $2.5 billion: $919 million for L3Harris, $890 million for Lockheed, and $740 million for Sierra Space, the Space Force’s acquisition arm announced today.

This is Sierra Space’s first contract with the Space Development Agency, and marks the entrance of a new major supplier in the satellite market. The contest was “really competitive,” and a total of nine companies offered bids to build these satellites, an SDA official told reporters January 16. 

Each company will build 16 missile warning and tracking satellites to detect ballistic and hypersonic missiles, and two “preliminary fire control” satellites, which track hypersonic missiles in greater detail and carry more sophisticated infrared sensors to collect data to feed to interceptors that can shoot down missiles. 

The Missile Defense Agency has also been developing fire control satellites through its  Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor program, called HBTSS, which SDA is using to help develop its satellites, the official said.

“For MDA’s HBTSS program, that capability has crossed the proverbial valley of death. They have learned the appropriate lessons, advanced the technology, informed the requirements so we can move forward with fire control,” the official said.  

SDA’s six missile-defense satellites will carry a mixture of wide- and medium-field cameras to sweep large areas and provide higher-resolution images, the official said.  

The Space Force will launch the satellites by April 2027 into low-Earth orbit to fill out the “Tranche 2 Tracking Layer” of the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture. Once operational, the system’s so-called transport layer will transmit data collected by the tracking layer.

This latest contract for 54 satellites will make up over half of the overall tracking layer, which will be “somewhere around 100 satellites,” the official said. The agency currently has four tracking satellites on orbit in Tranche 0 for demonstration purposes, with another four waiting to be launched, and 35 more planned in Tranche 1, which will begin delivering operational capabilities for warfighters. 

But these plans depend on money that will only become available if Congress passes the 2024 defense budget, SDA warned. 

The current continuing resolution means “we're able to award these contracts and get started with kickoff and some initial milestones, but we certainly need a budget passed in March or earlier,” the official said. “Otherwise, we have to make some tough decisions in how we execute our programs.”