Army ‘On Track’ to Field Hypersonic Missiles by 2023
Art: Scott Rekdal, Turbosquid, Getty
The Army is on track to field an experimental unit armed with hypersonic missiles by fiscal year 2023, according to the service official in charge of developing the technology.
“When I received that mission earlier this year, I immediately got the team together,” Lt. Gen. Neil Thurgood, head of the Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office, told reporters June 4 at the Pentagon. “We added some other players to the team and put together a strategy to do that and a timeline and a budget to do that.”
Now, “that program is on track to do what it needs to do,” Thurgood said.
The U.S. military is pursuing two methods of reaching hypersonic speeds, which are defined as exceeding Mach 5. One is an air-launched missile and the second is boost-glide, where a missile is launched high into the atmosphere and an upper-stage glide vehicle is released. It breaks Mach 5 as it descends.
The important distinction between other technologies that can exceed Mach 5 and the current technology push is maneuverability, Thurgood said.
Both China and Russia are pursuing hypersonic programs and have claimed to make breakthroughs. Defense Department leaders have declared the technology a top research-and-development priority. Maneuverable missiles that can reach hypersonic speeds are hard to defeat, which makes it a disruptive technology, experts have said.
The boost-glide system will be integrated into a battery consisting of four vehicles with two missiles on each truck, Thurgood said. A new transporter-erector launcher is being developed to carry the weapons, he noted. “They’re big, big heavy things,” he said of the missiles.
Plans include fielding the unit with the Army’s multi-domain task force, which is being used in the Pacific to practice ways to integrate new capabilities on the battlefield.
The battery will be used as an “experimental prototype with residual combat capability” and is expected to help the service decide on whether or not it will transition the technology to a program of record, he noted.
“Those eight rounds are for them to use in combat, if the nation decides that they want to apply that in a combat scenario,” he said. It will also help the unit develop tactics, techniques and procedures and learn how to train on the system without “committing to a large program of record,” Thurgood said.
Building the weapon is collaborative effort under a memorandum of agreement between the military services, Thurgood added. Under the agreement, the Army will produce the system’s “common hypersonic glide body,” which can be used by all the services. The Navy is the primary integrator and will supply the booster — with some help from the Army and Air Force — that will launch the glider.
There is a lot of commonality between the Army, Navy and Air Force booster requirements, which helps with the program’s buying power, although each has some different launch requirements, he noted. He meets regularly with his counterparts in the Navy, Air Force and office of secretary of defense to make sure their efforts are synchronized, he added.
The government owns the technology and all its data, he said. If the land-based boost-glide system becomes a program of record and more batteries are needed, the Army will need to transition the work to a contractor, he said.
“We have the responsibility to build the industrial base in the U.S. for that capability,” he added.
Thurgood said the erector-launcher may have the appearance of a long-range artillery system, but this is a “strategic missile” system. “It’s a strategic weapon that will be used for strategic outcomes,” he added.
One item that won’t need development is command-and-control system. “We have a command-and-control system in the Army that works just fine. We have trucks in the Army that work just fine. I don’t need to reinvent things that are already out there working that I can apply in a different way,” he said.