With Russia and China embracing the acceptance of hypersonic weapons skilled at evading US missile defenses, the Pentagon is investing billions in infrared sensor satellites to deal with the threat. According to Kelle Wendling, the newly elected president of L3Harris Technologies’ Space Systems department, US programs are not progressing as rapidly as they can.
In January, Kelle Wendling was named president of L3Harris Technologies’ Space Systems sector.
“If we take ten or twelve years to come up, we’ll be placing irrelevant capability in orbit, which is not where we want to be.”
L3Harris, a USD 17 billion defense contractor, is a major supplier of infrared sensors used in environmental and weather satellites, a technology it has spent years preparing for missile detection. It currently manufactures hypersonic and ballistic missile monitoring satellites for the Missile Defense Agency and Space Development Agency.
The first batch of 8 sensor satellites from SDA – 4 from SpaceX and 4 from L3Harris – is scheduled to launch in early 2023. In late 2023, MDA plans to launch two prototype infrared satellites–one from Northrop Grumman and one from L3Harris–to perform experiments.
Wendling has been with L3Harris for over 2 decades and was named head of the company’s national security space business, a division of L3Harris Space & Airborne Systems, in January. She stated that the immediacy of the hypersonic missile threat requires the Department of Defense and the defense industry to adapt their tolerance for risk and learn from the commercial space sector.
She stated that large business space players, such as SpaceX, “are indeed evolving how we obtain and deliver functionalities, and they have a tad higher risk tolerance than we do,” she stated. “Not just that, but they’re driving down prices.” As a result, we must adapt.
Because hypersonic missiles are sophisticated weapons that can pivot, glide, and maneuver, the technological threat to developing satellites to detect and track them is significant, according to Wendling. “And they take flight at a low altitude, which makes it extremely difficult because they’re harder to distinguish from the clutter.”
The industry has made incredibly advanced infrared sensing technology, but given the threat’s urgency, “we need to act rapidly and field something,” she said. “The challenge is to alter how we do acquisition, growth, assimilation, testing, and deployment to shorten the cycle.”
We’ve had some interesting conversations with the client about how some of the commercial companies handle situations, said Wendling.
She added that in commercial development, “some are happy to modify their software extremely near to release, which would make us really, very worried.” As a result, “we and our clients need to talk about how much risk we’re prepared to take.”
The missile-tracking satellites that L3Harris is going to develop for the DoD are being checked in labs, and “we believe this capacity can be implemented from space,” according to Wendling. But, as she pointed out, things don’t always go as planned in space. Any form of a technical roadblock in DoD takeovers can sidetrack a program. To prevent this, “we must have a discussion not only about the development and design but also about how we restore if something doesn’t work.”
“We need to start deflecting to a more agile method,” Wendling said. “I realize that word is overused, and we need a more agile environment to deploy capabilities.”