In the ever-evolving landscape of global security, staying ahead of advanced missile technologies has become a paramount concern for military agencies worldwide. Hypersonic missiles, characterized by their extreme speed and unpredictable flight paths, pose a significant challenge for conventional defense systems. However, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been at the forefront of developing cutting-edge solutions to address this threat. One of the most promising approaches involves leveraging satellite constellations, empowered by DARPA Oversight’s advanced software, to track and target hypersonic missiles in real-time. In this article, we explore how this revolutionary technology is set to redefine missile defense capabilities.
The Hypersonic Missile Challenge
Militaries around the world are increasingly facing a formidable strategic and threat environment in terms of complexity, lethality, range, sophistication, and number of threats. These range from Fifth-generation stealth fighters, unmanned air vehicles, and more maneuverable and precision-guided ballistic, cruise, and Hypersonic missiles that are becoming widely proliferated to become more accessible to emerging nations.
Hypersonic missiles are game-changers in modern warfare, capable of flying at speeds exceeding Mach 5, or 3,800 miles per hour. These ultra-high velocities and their ability to maneuver unpredictably make them exceedingly difficult to detect, track, and engage with traditional defense systems. The rise of hypersonic technology has compelled defense organizations to seek novel solutions that can mitigate their threat effectively.
The Department of Defense (DoD) relies on high-value asset early warning aircraft, such
as the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and Joint Surveillance and Target
Attack Radar System (JSTARS), or forward deployed ships with the Aegis combat system to
provide the detection and tracking necessary to guide forward tactical units to their targets on
land, sea, or in the air.
While AWACS and JSTARS can provide detailed information about the targets they are observing, they have a limited coverage area. This means that they may not be able to detect targets beyond their range, which can leave certain areas vulnerable to attack. In addition, these assets have become increasingly vulnerable. As airborne assets, both AWACS and JSTARS are vulnerable to attack from ground-based or air-based threats. They are typically heavily defended, but if they are successfully targeted, it can result in a significant loss of capability.
Our adversaries have made significant investments in long-range sensing capabilities as well as anti-air and anti-ship weapons, imposing costs and trade-offs such as increased stand-off distances for manned high-value assets operating in proximity to threat environments as a means of lowering risk postures. Maintaining a higher stand-off distance limits the utility of sensor systems, thus reducing their ability to support track custody.
Satellite Constellations: A New Frontier in Missile Defense
Satellites have long played an essential role in military and civilian applications, from communication to weather monitoring. The potential for utilizing satellite constellations for missile defense became evident, and DARPA began exploring ways to unleash their power against hypersonic threats.
By deploying a vast network of satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), DARPA Oversight enhances the global coverage and ensures constant surveillance of potential threat areas. Each satellite in the constellation communicates with the others, creating a seamless network capable of sharing data and working collaboratively to address missile threats in real-time.
DARPA is looking to employ emerging Satellite Constellations to track air and ground targets. DARPA launched in Jan 2022, BAA soliciting innovative proposals for the DARPA TTO Oversight program in the area of software development for tracking terrestrial targets from space and at scale.
Space Development Agency (SDA), is tasked with the development of capabilities including Global and near-real-time space situational awareness, persistent global surveillance for advanced missile targeting, and Indications, warning, targeting and tracking for defense against advanced missile threats. DARPA, the U.S. Space Force, and the Space Development Agency (SDA) are developing new satellite constellations to increase the tactical capabilities of U.S. space systems.
Satellite constellations can provide near-global coverage of the Earth’s surface, which makes them an ideal choice for monitoring activities in remote or inaccessible areas. This means that they can detect and track targets in areas where AWACS and JSTARS may not have coverage.
Satellite constellations can provide continuous monitoring of targets over long periods of time, which allows for the detection of changes in target behavior and activities. In contrast, airborne surveillance systems are limited by the time they can spend in the air before needing to refuel or return to base.
Satellite constellations typically comprise multiple satellites that work together to provide a range of services such as remote sensing, communication, and navigation. However, managing these constellations can be a complex task that requires the coordination of various resources, including ground-based control centers and satellite resources.
The Oversight program aims to develop software applications, services, and supporting architectures that provide constant custody for as many as 1,000 targets from space. However, additional investment is needed to effectively leverage these new satellite constellations for efficient track custody at scale.
Oversight will leverage a body of knowledge for efficient resource optimization and
apply it to the tasking of large-scale, distributed, and federated space systems. Oversight will
autonomously decompose a target list into tasks for each satellite such that constant custody at
scale is maintained for 1,000 targets.
Oversight will provide collaboration between satellite resources and ground-based resources for the distribution of tasking, re-tasking, synchronization, and fusion of target data within constellations. It will include features such as task allocation, re-tasking of satellites in response to changing requirements, synchronization of data collection and processing, and the fusion of data from multiple sources to provide a more comprehensive picture of the target area. Algorithms will detect changing target behaviors and dynamically re-task appropriate sensors with each satellite node to maintain constant custody at scale.
Oversight will further enable collaboration by sharing satellite state and target state knowledge between satellite resources and ground-based resources to increase efficiency. Within the context of this BAA, constant custody is considered knowledge of target error such that accuracy is obtained as necessary based on mission needs.
This knowledge sharing can help ensure that the satellites are operating optimally, and the data they collect is accurate and relevant to mission needs. For example, by sharing information about the current state of the satellite, such as its position and orientation, ground-based control centers can better coordinate the distribution of tasking and re-tasking of satellites to ensure that they are positioned correctly to observe their targets.
Oversight will leverage existing and/or state-of-the-art networks to connect constellations
and ground resources. Oversight will minimize bandwidth needs by prioritizing and disseminating necessary data for synchronization and data fusion among other satellites. Latency
and bandwidth limitations associated with a reliance on ground-based resources will be alleviated by processing data products for targets on orbit within the constellations. Latency and bandwidth limitations will be further alleviated through operator control at the constellation level rather than burdensome individual satellite control.
For deeper understand about Satellite Constellations and their applications please visit: Orbiting Success: A Guide to Designing and Building Satellite Constellations for Earth and Space Exploration
Oversight is a two-phase program that seeks software solutions to enable autonomous
constant custody at scale (1,000 targets) from space through management of available hardware
resources to support both peacetime and wartime monitoring of high value targets in contested
environments, in which the resources and targets may be highly dynamic. Oversight will develop software services with solutions that can be implemented on emerging space platforms, such as new Proliferated Low Earth Orbit (p-LEO) constellations.
Oversight will develop architecture and software to enable the constant custody of target
lists to be executed at a large-scale using space assets. Current practices require human operators
for exquisite satellite solutions. This arrangement does not scale well for the numbers of targets
that Oversight is considering. Reliance on individual ground station operators significantly
increases latency and minimizes tactical utility of satellite sensor data. Oversight will develop the
automation and autonomy necessary to track targets with the operator overseeing many targets at an aggregate level. Oversight will enable operators to control space resources at the constellation
level for constant custody applications at scale.
The Role of DARPA Oversight’s Software
The core of this revolutionary missile defense strategy lies in the groundbreaking software developed by DARPA Oversight. This advanced software integrates artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and big data analytics to process vast amounts of sensor data from satellite constellations and other sources.
a. Enhanced Sensor Fusion: Traditional missile defense systems rely on a single sensor or a limited number of sensors, which may be susceptible to jamming or interference. DARPA’s software enables the seamless fusion of data from multiple sensors, including infrared, radar, and optical, allowing for a more comprehensive and accurate picture of the missile’s trajectory.
b. Real-time Targeting: The high-speed nature of hypersonic missiles demands a near-instantaneous response. DARPA Oversight’s software can rapidly process incoming data and predict the missile’s probable trajectory, enabling precise real-time targeting. This capability significantly enhances the probability of intercepting and neutralizing the threat.
c. Adaptive Learning: Hypersonic missile technology is continually evolving, and adversaries are likely to employ new tactics to evade detection and interception. DARPA’s software incorporates adaptive learning algorithms that continually analyze new data and update defense strategies accordingly, ensuring a proactive approach to countering emerging threats.
Accordingly, proposals demonstrating innovation in resource management, task allocation, data management and dissemination are solicited. Proposed research should investigate approaches that revolutionize advances. Research that primarily results in evolutionary improvements to the
existing state of practice is specifically excluded from this solicitation.
This BAA encompasses two independent tracks for Oversight Phase 1 (Phase 1 includes
Phase 1 Base and Phase 1 Option):
• Track A: Architecture and software development
• Track B: Software exploration and maturation for resource management, task allocation, data management and dissemination
A future solicitation may be issued in a limited competition among Track A performers
for Phase 2 (Phase 2 includes a Phase 2 Base and Phase 2 Option):
▪ Phase 2 Base: Architecture and software maturation
▪ Phase 2 Option: Live, Virtual and Constructive (LVC) Demonstration
Grimes described a hypothetical scenario for how autonomous target custody would work. A satellite, for example, detects a signal from a vessel that is unexpected as it’s in a controlled ocean region. The onboard system updates the other satellites in the network and prioritizes that vessel for custody. Immediately, an electro-optical satellite passing overhead takes an image and IDs the vessel as a fishing vessel. That location and ID are then sent to a nearby Coast Guard ship for investigation.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has selected three industry teams to develop software architectures as part of the initial phase of a monitoring program. The products are designed to help military planners survey up to 1,000 targets of interest in space in support of tactical missions.
Apogee Research, BAE Systems’ information and electronics systems integration business and Systems & Technology Research will work under Phase 1 of DARPA’s Oversight program.
BAE Systems has been awarded a $7 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop artificial intelligence (AI) tools to automate the tracking of data collected by military satellites. The company will work with AI specialists OmniTeq and AIMdyn on the DARPA project known as Oversight. DARPA also selected Apogee Research and Systems & Technology Research for the initial phase of the program.
The three companies selected for the 15-month Phase 1 of Oversight will define tracking requirements, and interfaces between technologies in development. Under Phase 2, the software will transition to in-orbit spacecraft. John Grimes, director of small satellites at BAE Systems’ FAST Labs, said the company’s track custody software will be applicable to multiple types of sensors, including electro-optical and radio-frequency. If BAE is selected for Phase 2 and beyond, the software could be deployed on Space Development Agency sensor satellites that track hypersonic missiles, said Grimes.
“Through this program, DARPA aims to extend the applicability of U.S. space assets and make the space domain more tactically relevant for warfighters,” said Lael Rudd, Oversight program manager at DARPA’s tactical technology office.
The program’s first phase will run for 15 months with an option period of another three months to support further development and will focus on defining resource management needs, tracking requirements and interface between technology platforms in development.
Rudd noted that DARPA is working with service branches to facilitate early transitions during the program’s first phase.
“We want to get initial products out as fast as possible and that will help cultivate the development needs in Oversight Phase 2, during which we plan to have applications running on hardware resources,” Rudd added.
DARPA said it expects Oversight capabilities developed through the second phase to be integrated with in-orbit spacecraft by fiscal year 2026.
Collaboration and Global Reach
DARPA Oversight’s software doesn’t function in isolation; rather, it fosters collaboration between satellite constellations, ground-based radars, and other defense assets. This collaborative approach allows for seamless integration of information and expertise from various sources, creating a more robust and comprehensive missile defense network.
Additionally, the global reach of satellite constellations enables rapid response to missile threats across international borders. This international cooperation strengthens security efforts and builds stronger defense alliances.
As hypersonic missile technology continues to advance, the need for cutting-edge defense solutions becomes increasingly urgent. DARPA Oversight’s software-driven satellite constellations represent a quantum leap in missile defense capabilities. By leveraging AI, machine learning, and adaptive learning, these constellations can effectively track and target hypersonic missiles, neutralizing potential threats in real-time.
With its unprecedented global coverage, collaborative approach, and constant innovation, DARPA Oversight’s software has ushered in a new era of satellite-based missile defense. As this technology evolves and matures, it promises to provide nations with enhanced security and stability in an ever-changing and complex geopolitical landscape.