COLORADO SPRINGS – China and Russia are using hypersonic weapons Able to evade US missile shields, the Pentagon is spending billions of dollars on infrared sensor satellites to counter the threat. Kelle Wendling, the new president of L3Harris Technologies’ Space Systems sector, says the US programs are not progressing as quickly as they could be.
“If it takes us 10 or 12 years to catch up, we’re going to put irrelevant capabilities into orbit, and that’s not where we want to be,” Wendling said SpaceNews.
L3Harris, a $17 billion defense contractor, is a key US government supplier of infrared sensors used in weather and environmental satellites, a technology the company spent years adapting for missile detection. It currently produces ballistic and hypersonic missile tracking satellites for the Space Development Agency and the Missile Defense Agency.
SDA’s first eight sensor satellites — four from L3Harris and four from SpaceX — are scheduled to launch in early 2023. MDA will launch two prototype infrared satellites — one from L3Harris and one from Northrop Grumman — in late 2023 to conduct experiments.
wendling has been with L3Harris for more than two decades and in January assumed leadership of the company’s national security space business, a sector within L3Harris Space & Airborne Systems. she said the urgency of the hypersonic missile threat requires the Department of Defense and the defense industry to adjust their risk tolerance and differentiate themselves from the commercial space sector.
Big commercial space players like SpaceX are “really changing how we acquire and deploy capabilities, and they have a slightly higher tolerance for risk than we do,” she said. “Not only that, they’re also driving down costs. So we have to adapt.”
The technological risk in developing satellites to detect and track hypersonic missiles is significant because they are sophisticated weapons that can rotate, glide and maneuver, Wendling said. “And they fly at lower altitudes, which makes it incredibly difficult because they’re not as easy to pick out of the clutter.”
Industry has been developing increasingly sophisticated infrared sensing technologies, but given the urgency of the threat, “we have to move fast and get something off the ground,” she said. “The challenge is how do we change procurement, development, integration, testing and deployment so we can move through the cycle faster?”
“We had an interesting dialogue with the client about how some of the commercial players are approaching things,” Wendling said.
In the commercial space, “some are willing to change their software just before launch and that would make us very, very nervous,” she added. “Therefore, we and our customers have to discuss what risk tolerance we are willing to accept.”
The missile tracking satellites that L3Harris is developing for DoD are being tested in labs, and “we believe this capability can be performed from space,” Wendling said. But things in the space environment don’t always work exactly as planned, she noted. In DoD acquisitions, any type of technical setback can derail a program. To avoid such an outcome, “we shouldn’t just talk about design and development, but also how we recover when something doesn’t work.”
“We need to start moving to a more agile approach, and I know that word is overused, but we need a more agile environment in which to deploy capabilities,” Wendling said.