Chinese researchers spy blind spots in US hypersonic ‘tracking layer’ ambitions

A global early warning system being built in the US to track hypersonic weapons will be an improvement on its existing system but have to overcome several big challenges to be effective, according to a study by Chinese military scientists.

Two defence contractors, SpaceX and L3Harris, won a bid in October to build the “tracking layer” system for the US Space Force.

If everything goes to plan, eight satellites designed to keep tabs on hypersonic missiles will be sent to near-Earth orbit of about 1,000km (620 miles) by early 2023.

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According to the Chinese researchers, the number of satellites would have to increase tenfold to meet the minimum requirement of tracking an unfriendly object travelling at five times the speed of sound.

By comparison, the Global Positioning System uses just over 30 satellites.

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But even with more than 100 satellites, the tracking layer programme would not be able to detect a hypersonic weapon, Xue Yonghong and colleagues with the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunication Technology wrote in a peer-reviewed paper published in the domestic journal Infrared and Laser Engineering on Wednesday.

The researchers said that to lock on a target’s initial coordinates, the network would need help from other satellites operating at higher altitudes.

In the paper, they said simulations suggested that unlike a traditional satellite which sees a subject best when flying overhead, a tracking layer satellite would have a blind spot making it more difficult to detect a hypersonic weapon flying right beneath it.

These results contain “some important clues” to China and other countries with an interest in the US national defence space architecture, according to the researchers, whose institute is affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army.

China and Russia have developed and deployed several types of hypersonic missiles in recent years, with China conducting more test flights annually than the US did in a decade.

The US military has conducted test flights of its own hypersonic designs and although some have failed, including one early this month, they could reportedly be ready for deployment within a few years.

If working with a powerful space-based early warning system, these hypersonic missiles would have a chance to intercept an enemy counterpart, according to the researchers.

The Chinese weapons are designed to challenge the US’ military superiority, but their impact depends largely on the inability of existing missile defence systems to respond to high-speed threats.

Xue and his colleagues said this gap in defences could be partly overcome by warning system upgrades.

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The US has the world’s biggest and most sophisticated early warning system in space – the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), which includes more than 10 satellites to monitor missile launches across the globe.

But the SBIRS was built to detect traditional missiles and a hypersonic weapon has a different heat signature and flight pattern, requiring a much more powerful system to track.

The tracking layer could go some way to improving that system.

The researchers analysed the publicly available bidding documents for the programme and concluded that although expensive, the new equipment could significantly outperform the mainstream early warning system in use today.

The new satellites would be able to point their cameras at any target in less than two minutes, faster than most satellites currently in use. A hypersonic missile takes just eight minutes to strike an aircraft carrier 1,000km away.

The heat sensors on these satellites would also be able to detect heat signals of just a fraction of those released by a typical ballistic missile. A hypersonic weapon’s signal could be obscured or reduced by the atmosphere and background heat on Earth.

Moreover, the existing early warning system can track the position of a ballistic missile with an error of about 1km. The tracking layer would reduce the margin to 200 metres, according to Xue and colleagues.

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But whether or when these advanced satellites would be launched on the scale needed for combat requirements remained unclear. And future hypersonic weapons could find ways to bypass them as well, according to some military experts.

One study by a team of researchers from the PLA Central Theatre Command in April found that the effect of hypersonic weapons could be as great as the nuclear weapon in terms of changing the strategic balance.

The study said the next generation of hypersonic missiles would use artificial intelligence to fool defence systems, changing the flight path in response to changes in the environment.

A smart missile could also release decoys to mask its trail or use other technologies to manipulate electromagnetic signals.

The Central Theatre Command team also said there be would many problems using a hypersonic missile to counter another hypersonic missile. More effective countermeasures would be directed energy weapons such as laser or electromagnetic pulse guns that could hit a threat at the speed of light.

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