Senate offers more funding for hypersonic weapons tracking

The U.S. Senate's defense bill adds $120 million to the Defense Department's space-based anti-hypersonic weapons program, despite no request for an increase.

The Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor, a constellation of satellites dedicated to locating the firing and direction of enemy missiles capable of achieving 5,000 miles-per-hour speeds, is a part of the Defense Department's Fiscal Year 2021 budget request. Some senators believe the project's urgency is growing.

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen.Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., noted on Thursday that China was ahead of the United States in hypersonic weapons development and missile defense.

"Last October, China paraded a hypersonic weapon, showing off a technology we don't even have yet," Inhofe said while arguing for an increased 2021 military budget.

Russia also has hypersonic weapons in development. The missiles can maneuver around ground based sensors but are not noticed by space-based sensors in higher orbits. HBTSS solves the problem with a dedicated constellation of Overhead Persistent Infrared sensors in low earth orbit.

HBTSS will be included in the Space Development Agency's National Defense Space Architecture, a new system of low earth orbiting satellites. Northrop Grumman, Leidos, Harris Corp. and Raytheon have already received contracts to develop a prototype.

The Senate's version of the defense bill authorizes an additional $120 million in research funds to the Missile Defense Agency for HBTSS. Another $108 million in unrequested funding was added to the budget by the Senate last year.

The Fiscal Year 2021 allocation for HBTSS continues a 2019 battle between the administration and Congress over which agency should lead the program's development effort, officials say.

Lawmakers sought to put the MDA in charge of the program, but the White House is reluctant to name a single presiding agency. The bill includes a provision putting primary responsibility for the system with MDA, although the Space Development Agency is actually in charge of HBTSS development.

MDA Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill tried to assure senators at the March hearing that his agency was fully in charge of developing the sensor for HBTSS, but skepticism has persisted.

Hill said that funding should be allocated to SDA, which would then provide funding to MDA. As it is currently written, the legislation rejects any SDA authority to transfer funding.

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