Modern warfare bears little resemblance to the battles fought around the world during World War II. Back then, electronic technology was just beginning to emerge. More than 80 years after that first shot was fired in Poland, modern warfare has taken on an entirely different identity. Today it is all about computerization and sensor arrays.

The latest emerging threat are hypersonic weapons. Though such weapons are still overshadowed by ballistic and cruise missiles, they could prove to be an even greater nemesis in the years to come. Experts say the key to defending against them is a new generation of sensors capable of tracking a hypersonic weapon from birth to death.

Missile Defense Agency director Navy Vice Admiral Jon Hill made it clear during a recent webinar that the hypersonic threat is very real. He pointed out one of the major concerns of hypersonic weapons: they all look the same in flight. That makes them harder to defend against. Hypersonic weapons are fast, maneuverable, and very difficult to identify.

The Pros and Cons of Hypersonic

Hypersonic weapons are weapons that can travel at five times the speed of sound or greater. Ballistic missiles have that capability, but there is something different about this new threat. A ballistic missile spends the majority of its travel time in low Earth orbit. They are easily identified as such.

By contrast, hypersonic weapons never leave the atmosphere. Thus, it is more difficult to distinguish between a missile launched from land, sea, or air. Furthermore, hypersonic weapons occupy that middle space that is not covered by those monitoring systems watching for ballistic and cruise missiles.

It is obvious that this unmonitored space has to be addressed. That is where new sensor arrays come in. According to Vice Adm. Hill, the best way to defend against hypersonic weapons is to develop sensor arrays capable of continuously tracking from the moment a weapon is launched to the moment it’s either destroyed or makes impact.

“You don’t want to lose track of the threats, particularly if they are unpredictable and maneuverable,” Hill said in his webinar.

Our existing sensor architecture does have some limited capabilities for tracking hypersonic weapons. But Hill says improvements are necessary. He went on to say that the Missile Defense Agency is working with partners and allies to develop new sensor architecture capable of addressing the emerging threat.

Better Sensors Mean Better Defense

Today’s electronic warfare really boils down to which side has the better sensors. Companies like California’s Rock West Solutions work on new projects with the understanding that better sensors mean better defense. But what makes a new sensor better than an old one?

Rock West explains that a sensor is nothing more than electronic device capable of monitoring for, receiving, and transmitting data. Thus, sensors can take on virtually any form. Our military needs a variety of sensors to counteract the threat of hypersonic weapons.

A better sensor is one that does a better job of monitoring for threats. It does a better job of receiving and transmitting data. A better sensor is less prone to generating false data or outright failing in the field. And with artificial intelligence now coming into its own, the sensors of tomorrow will be better in the sense that they will be able to ‘learn’ and make certain determinations on their own.

Hypersonic weapons are here, and they are only going to get better. They may be ancillary to ballistic and cruise missiles for now, but that will not last forever. Only emerging sensor technology is going to help us defend against their inevitable threat.