The US Department of Defense solicits ideas for a solid propellant that greatly reduces exhaust infrared signatures - a stealth rocket fuel.

A posting at the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) website was made by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The project looks at solid propellants that reduce IR signatures while keeping thrust to mass ratio performance.

The solicitation opened on September 23 and is set to close on October 22.

On the Track for Hard to Detect Missiles

In its solicitation announcement, the MDA notes: "Detection of a missile launch and booster burnout are important threat identification points." Therefore, it is looking to develop propellants that can reduce IR signatures and develop rockets that can avoid remote IR surveillance systems. 

Michael Peck, writing for Forbes, explains that the Pentagon's pursuit for propellant materials with less IR signatures "is not necessarily sinister." He explained that rocket-based interceptors - those that use rockets as a defense against identified incoming rocket threats - still use boosters that generate a lot of light and heat.

He warned that enemies could use the infrared flash from these interceptors, giving away and exposing US missile defense launchers and ships. The same situation applies to interceptor missiles mid-flight, with its own plume or IR signature being detectable and allowing an incoming projectile to employ diversionary and evasive actions.

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However, American defense is now looking at anti-missile lasers in its arsenal, disrupting missiles mid-flight without the need for projectiles. Nevertheless, until then, most of its anti-missile defense relies on ballistic missiles such as ground interceptors and patriots on land with aegis rockets at sea.

Peck also warned of a "much more catastrophic risk" following stealth rockets' development, citing that the US and Russia managed to keep off irreversible missile launches due to nuclear deterrence, which is founded on the idea that a nuclear attack would be detected in time to launch retaliation.


Improving The US Defense Arsenal

Defense systems of major superpowers such as the US, Russia, and China, now include satellites in Earth orbit designed to detect infrared signatures of long-range projectiles like intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). For the United States, it has a Defense Support Program constellation of missile defense satellites.

Recently, the Department of Defense' Space Development Agency (SDA) awarded a $149 million contract to SpaceX as well as a $193 million contract for L3 Harris Technologies. Both contractors are expected to develop four wide-field-of-view (WFOV) satellites, with satellites fitted with infrared missile tracking sensors. SpaceX will be using its Redmond, Washington facility for the project. The contractors are expected to have their WFOV satellites ready by the fall of 2022.

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The WFOV satellites  will be a part of the SDA's efforts to update the National Defense Space Architecture designed to improve the agency's response in detecting, tracking, and defeating "advanced missile threats." SDA Director expressed confidence in these awarded contracts to help the agency deliver in its upgrade plans.

"We look forward to working collaboratively with industry and our government partners like MDA to deliver a tracking solution that puts critical information in the hands of the joint warfighter at or ahead of the speed of the threat," Tournear noted.