Pentagon's missile tracking satellite launch delayed by chip shortages, protests

Supply chain issues and bid protests put a spoke in the wheels.
Ameya Paleja

An adversarial missile tracking system scheduled for launch from the Vandenberg Space Force Base later this month has been delayed by a period of at least three months, Defense News has reported. This is the Space Development Agency's (SDA's) first major project since its formation in 2019.

With the rising threat from hypersonic weapons developed by Russia and China, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is keen to set up a missile tracking system to counter them. This task has been entrusted to the SDA, which has the responsibility of crafting a resilient space architecture for the U.S. This is being done by complementing the conventionally large constellations of the DoD with hundreds of affordable satellites in low Earth orbit.

The missile tracking system

The first layer, also called Tranche 0, of SDA's plan for a missile tracking system, includes a total of 28 satellites, of which 20 are communication satellites while eight are missile tracking infrared sensor satellites.

In October 2020, the SDA awarded contracts for the two sets of satellites. Lockheed Martin and York Space won the awards for the communication satellites, while the missile tracking satellites would come from L3 Harris and SpaceX.

The September launch was part of the larger plan to demonstrate proof-of-concept for this mission, following which new capabilities could be added every two years, Defense News said in its report.

Supply issues, protests delayed launch

Soon after the contracts were awarded, Airbus and Raytheon contested the results over concerns about the evaluation process. The protests are estimated to set back the program by a period of three months. However, they were not the only cause of the delay.

The shortage of microchips that was felt after the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted global supply chains, also had a role to play. Interesting Engineering has covered how chip shortages affected the automotive industry, among others, but even high-priority defense programs were not spared. Software development also took a hit during this period of time.

Pentagon's missile tracking satellite launch delayed by chip shortages, protests

Nevertheless, SDA Director, Derek Tournear, was unfazed by the magnitude of the problem and, while speaking at the Space Industry Summit in May this year, expected Tranche 0 to be launched in September as planned. However, as August drew to a close, the mission was still far from ready for a launch, and the SDA finally decided to push the launch by a period of three months.

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Tournear doesn't view this as a major setback in the U.S. preparedness in tracking missiles. “We didn’t hit the stretch goal, but we’re still going to hit that threshold goal,” he told C4ISRNET. “It’s more of an ego hit to us than anything.”

The SDA hasn't shared details on exactly how many satellites will be included in the December launch. It is likely that the now delayed launch will carry eight or nine satellites, with a second launch scheduled for March, carrying the rest of Tranche 0. If the SDA achieves this without any hiccups, the missile tracking system can still perform a technology demonstration in the summer of 2023, Defense News said in its report.

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