The US Department of Defense (DoD) will continue to look to Northrop Grumman (NG) to secure polar coverage with its Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) polar-orbiting satellites in a contract modification worth $235m on 5 October.

As the original equipment manufacturer of OPIR, NG will enable the DoD to detect and track ballistic and hypersonic missile threats travelling toward the continental United States via the polar region – the shortest route for a missile to travel toward the country, and the most difficult region to monitor from space.

The modification brings the total cumulative face value of the contract to $2bn. Work will be performed at Redondo Beach, California, and is expected to be completed by 25 July 2026. 

While ballistic missiles follow a more discernible trajectory, hypersonic glide vehicles follow a different, more unpredictable, trajectory which makes the versatility of the OPIR early warning missile system so critical to American defence.

The US, Russia, and China are all testing hypersonic technology, generating fears of escalating global competition for weaponry that has the potential to render current defences inadequate. OPIR is designed to keep pace with such developments.

The reported use of hypersonic missiles in Ukraine – the Russian ‘Kinzhal’ missile – represents the first time the weapons have been deployed operationally.

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OPIR satellites operate in highly elliptical orbits and will continue advancing the missile warning mission into a more capable asset. The constellation’s modernised sensors will provide excellent coverage of the entire northern hemisphere and are fitted with new resiliency features to stay in the fight in contested scenarios.

OPIR’s enhanced communication system allows operators to transmit wide-band OPIR data to the ground. This ensures the US will be able to find the needle in the haystack by pulling infrared heat signatures out of the noise. Operators can use the new improved OPIR data to fine-tune their algorithms over time and enhance performance on-orbit.

At the UK Chief of the Air Staff’s Air and Space Power Conference in July 2023, Northrop Grumman’s vice president of strategy and business development, Rick Breckenridge, noted: “When it comes to situational awareness, we need increased polar orbits in the space domain, as well as High Altitude Long Endurance ISR systems in the air. This will be essential in providing the fidelity persistence that is required.”

Before NG’s latest modification, in May, NG announced that it had completed a preliminary design review for the US Space Force Systems Command’s OPIR programme. Whereupon the prime is on track to begin production of the early warning missile system.