National Hypersonics Initiative Gets Green Light

By Stew Magnuson
An artist’s rendering illustrates what a hypersonic missile could look like as it travels along the edge of Earth's atmosphere.


AUSTIN, Texas — A much talked about initiative to help the U.S. catch up in hypersonics technology with its rivals is moving ahead, a senior Defense Department official said March 20.

“There will be an effort to focus on hypersonics, whether it is an initiative or whatever. It is going to be a deliberate investment. And you will see that in the '19 budget with DARPA and the Air Force,” Mary Miller, who is performing the duties of the assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, told National Defense.

“We have a plan — a strategy for a national hypersonics initiative — that includes NASA as a key component,” Miller told the audience at the National Defense Industrial Association's Science and Engineering Technology conference in Austin, Texas.

Miller’s boss, the new undersecretary of defense for research and engineering Michael Griffin, said hypersonics is his No. 1 technical priority, and he is quickly moving ahead to put together an initiative. Griffin was the former NASA administrator.

The possibility of a national hypersonics initiative was first mentioned publicly earlier this month by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Director Steven Walker on the same day Russia announced that it had developed new hypersonic weapons,

About a year ago, DARPA leaders met with then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work and “laid out where we thought the U.S. was in hypersonics and where we thought some of our peer competitors were in hypersonics, and really tried to convince the department that we need a national initiative in this area,” Walker told reporters March 1 during a meeting in Washington, D.C.

Walker’s office carried this thinking forward as the Pentagon built its fiscal year 2019 budget request, he noted.

“We did push for a very comprehensive initiative in the budget process this fall,” he said. “We did receive a budget increase at DARPA and in the services to do more hypersonics. I don’t think we got everything we wanted but it was a good first step.”

The fiscal blueprint calls for DARPA to receive $257 million for its hypersonics efforts in 2019, a 136 percent increase over the 2018 request, according to an agency spokesman.

Meanwhile, Moscow plans to deploy a new Avangard strategic missile system equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle no later than 2019, Russian news agency TASS reported last week.

Griffin “is very determined to get not only offensive hypersonics in play, but defensive hypersonics in play,” Miller said.

She acknowledged that rivals have surpassed U.S. capabilities in the still developing technology, and they may have borrowed some U.S. ideas.

“This is an area where we have seen our adversaries exceed our ability where we were leading the charge for awhile. We slowed down. We thought we had it made. We had time to do this and then we got a little distracted by a war for a good number of years. And they moved ahead,” she said. “They moved ahead by leveraging everything they could get that we had done and proceeding from there,” she said without mentioning the name of the country.

“They were essentially a fast follower, and then they have taken it well beyond where we are currently. We are catching up and are at par in some areas. We just need to do more of this,” she added. “We need to certainly get it out faster.”

Additional reporting by Jon Harper.

Topics: Advanced Weapons, Defense Department, Defense Innovation

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