SPECIAL REPORT: Defense Department Accelerates Hypersonic Weapons Development
This part 1 of a 2-part special report on hypersonic technologies.
A renewed sense of urgency spurred by rivals Russia and China has pushed the U.S. military to speed up the development of hypersonic technology. The Army, Navy and Air Force are all closely involved in the campaign with more test flights coming in 2020.
The systems are characterized by their maneuverability and ability to reach speeds of Mach 5 and greater.
Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, has been an outspoken advocate for hypersonic weapon research and development.
“Hypersonic capabilities remain a major department-wide modernization focus, and DoD is accelerating hypersonic systems development and demonstration,” he said in March during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on intelligence and emerging threats and capabilities.
The Defense Department requested $2.6 billion toward hypersonics in President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2020 budget request and is nearly doubling its long-term investments from $6 billion to $11.2 billion over the next five years, Griffin noted.
“We have significantly increased flight testing, as we intend to conduct approximately 40 flight tests over the next few years, to accelerate the delivery of capability to our warfighters years earlier than previously planned,” he said in his prepared testimony.
For example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force are developing two hypersonic vehicle prototypes that are due to fly by the end of the year, said Steven Walker, DARPA’s director.
One vehicle is part of the hypersonic air-breathing weapon concept, or HAWC, program. The other is the tactical boost-glide, or TBG, effort, Walker told reporters during a meeting in Washington, D.C. in May.
“We’re on track for both to have flights … before the calendar year ends,” he said. However, that might be questionable because once “you actually get into the building of these things and qualifying the hardware, … things tend to slip.”
Walker said there is a chance the vehicles could fly in early 2020 instead, but was hopeful that would not be the case. DARPA has been working on both efforts alongside the Air Force since 2012, he noted.
These initiatives were focused on tactical theater-level operations, he said.
Tactical boost-glide is meant to develop an advanced system that can be launched from a rocket, he said. The vehicle reaches high speeds as it glides back toward Earth.
The air-breathing concept takes advantage of work DARPA has previously done in scramjet technology to create a system that can be self-powered after being launched from an aircraft such as a B-52.
According to the agency, the effort is focusing on three technology challenge areas including air-vehicle feasibility, effectiveness and affordability.
“Two very different concepts, but when you’re talking hypersonics it’s good to have what I consider intended redundancy,” Walker said. It’s difficult to manufacture “materials and propulsion systems that last in 3,000-degree Fahrenheit temperatures,” he added.
A number of hurdles could potentially delay the flights, he noted. Both systems are currently in the early stages of their assembly, integration and test phases.
“You have to qualify all the hardware components. Sometimes you run into issues with [qualification] tests,” he said. “You got to re-qualify things, put that all together and you test the whole system and you hope it all works and has been done correctly.”
Hypersonic vehicles have become increasingly important technology areas to the Defense Department writ large.
“It’s an area that I believe the U.S. really needs to make progress in and be a leader in,” Walker said. “From a technology standpoint, … we have led the way in hypersonics. I think some of our peer competitors, though, have taken that technology and turned it into capability faster than we have.” (See story page 30)
The advantage of hypersonic vehicles is not just time of flight, but also the range that would be achieved by the high-speed vehicle, he said.
“You also get a lot of potential maneuverability that we don’t have today,” he said. It’s “a combination of all those factors [that] make it an attractive technology, which is why our adversaries are working on them.”
Walker noted that DARPA is also engaged with the Army on hypersonic-related activities.
It is working with the service on a program that takes advantage of technology leveraged from the tactical boost-glide effort, he said. The system — known as Operational Fires, or OpFires — is a 50/50 cost share and will give the service a ground-launched capability to penetrate modern enemy air defenses.
“It’s a brand new booster,” he said. The system “would allow a lot more controllability, mobility for the Army and an ability to really use the system in the most effective way versus any other existing booster that’s out there.”
In June, the Air Force conducted the first flight test of its AGM-183A air-launched rapid response weapon — which was built by Lockheed Martin — on a B-52 Stratofortress at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
A sensor-only version of the prototype was carried externally by the aircraft during the test to gather environmental and aircraft handling data, the Air Force said in a press release. The test collected data on drag and vibration impacts on the weapon and on the external carriage equipment of the aircraft.
“We set out an aggressive schedule with ARRW,” said Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics. “Getting to this flight test on time highlights the amazing work of our acquisition workforce and our partnership with Lockheed Martin and other industry partners.”
ARRW is set to reach early operational capability by fiscal year 2022, according to the service.
Meanwhile, the Navy is working on its own hypersonic weapon.
In February, the service’s strategic systems program office announced an $846 million contract to Lockheed Martin’s space division for its intermediate range conventional prompt strike weapon system. The contract includes the design, development, build and integration of rocket motors, flight systems and support equipment.
The strategic systems program’s office did not respond to a request for an interview.
During an April earnings call for the first quarter of fiscal year 2019, Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson noted that the Navy’s order followed three previous awards the corporation had received on hypersonic weapons including the tactical boost-glide contract, the hypersonic conventional strike weapon and the air-launched rapid response weapon.
These programs are being performed in three of Lockheed’s four business areas with a cumulative value exceeding $2.5 billion, she added.
“We’ve been investing in hypersonics for many, many years,” she said. “As a result of that, I think that’s why we’re leading in this front end of being able to bring capability forward.”
In January, the Navy released a “sources sought” notice on FedBizOpps in search of a company that can upgrade, redesign and operate the current launch text complex at its China Lake, California, weapons testing facility in the Mojave Desert.
The upgraded complex — which will now be known as the air-launch test complex — will provide air-launch testing and capability to support the conventional prompt strike program, the notice said.
Sources were also requested to provide a conceptual design for an underwater test complex, the notice said.
“The ALT and ULT complex will not only aide in the conceptual design of a new weapons system, through qualification of hardware, various components and systems, but will also provide risk mitigation for the testing of the new weapons system on a ship, submarine, aircraft and land to achieve the hypersonic capability as directed by the office of the secretary of defense,” the notice said.
A Navy spokesperson declined an interview for this article, noting that the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division does not at the moment have any official tasking for hypersonic weapons development or test efforts at China Lake.
“It would be inappropriate to speculate about future requirements,” she said.
However, Tom Dowd, director of Naval Air Systems Command’s ranges and air vehicle modification and instrumentation group, noted that between 2003 and 2013, hypersonic weapons testing occurred at the Point Mugu Sea Range in California.
“We are evaluating our capabilities to return to supporting any future testing requirements that may arise,” he said in an email. “Ensuring the ability to track, communicate with and gather data from anything moving that far [and] that fast will be critical for anyone conducting hypersonic testing efforts in the future.”
Meanwhile, the Army is also involved in a major development effort known as the long-range hypersonic weapon, which will deliver “residual combat capability” to soldiers at the battery level by 2023, which is an acceleration of the initial fielding by two years, said Lt. Gen. Neil Thurgood, director of hypersonics, directed energy, space and rapid acquisition for the Army.
The experimental prototyping effort could lead to a program of record down the line, he said in an email. It is being developed by the Army’s hypersonic project office and in close coordination with the Air Force and Navy.
The Army requested $228 million in fiscal year 2020 for the weapon in the president’s budget request and included an additional $130 million for hypersonics prototyping in the Army chief of staff’s unfunded priorities list for fiscal year 2020, according to budget documents.
The long-range hypersonic weapon “will introduce a new class of ultrafast, maneuverable, long-range missiles that launch from ground platforms,” Thurgood said. “It will enable the Army to operate in the [anti-access/area denial] environment by penetrating and disrupting enemy air defense systems, anti-ship missiles and anti-satellite weapons.”
It is also developing the glide body for the Air Force and Navy, he added. Thurgood noted that the Army is working closely with the other services through a joint service memorandum of agreement on design, development, testing and production of hypersonic weapons. The Navy will provide the booster.
“This cooperation allows us to leverage one another’s technologies as much as possible, while tailoring them to meet specific air, land and sea requirements,” he said.
The long-range hypersonic weapon also includes an existing, refurbished truck and trailer to be modified as a new erector-launcher. It will use an existing Army command-and-control system, Thurgood said.
“As part of LRHW development, the Army will leverage operational feedback and a series of technology demonstrations and tests starting next year,” he said. “These assessments will focus on specific objectives, such as operating in a contested environment, temperature extremes and flight distance markers.”
The Army is also seeking funding for a complementary system known as the strategic-long range cannon.
The effort “matures and integrates long-range armament technologies for both weapons and munitions to demonstrate potential deep strike objective capabilities from future cannon artillery systems,” budget documents said.
The service is asking for $228 million in research, development, test and evaluation funding for the effort through fiscal year 2022, according to the documents.
Col. John Rafferty, director of the long-range precision fires cross functional team at Army Futures Command, said the system will be particularly useful for A2/AD situations.
“The target set for the anti-access and area denial complex that’s out there … [is] a mix of hardened infrastructure and strategic infrastructure type of targets,” he said during remarks at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Armament Systems Forum in June.
“If you look at the long-range hypersonic weapon, it’s delivering an exquisite munition,” he said. “You want to put that at the strategic infrastructure, to hardened fixed targets that make up one part of the complex and then use the strategic long-range cannon to deliver a volume of more affordable projectiles at some of the lighter skin” targets.
By using the two systems in concert, the Army would be able to penetrate and disintegrate an A2/AD environment to create “windows of opportunity” for the joint force to exploit, he said.
A technology demonstration for the cannon is scheduled for 2023, he noted.
Meanwhile, as the services invest in and develop new hypersonic weapons, Defense Department leadership is considering how it can bolster the industrial base to manufacture such systems.
“We are going to have to create a new industrial base for these systems,” Griffin said in December during a discussion hosted by NDIA. “Industry will get a very clear message from the department as to the paths we are pursuing in hypersonic offensive and defensive systems development, and we’re confident that you guys will respond.”
The department needs “multiplicity and redundancy” in the supply chain, he added.
Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who at the time was serving as deputy secretary of defense, noted that producing thousands of hypersonic weapons and other systems to defend against them has implications for the size of the industrial base, the number of needed suppliers and the amount of government investment required.
“As we’re looking at kind of setting up the industrial base or production system or development, we want to have two or three competitors,” he said. “So instead of a winner-take-all, it’s ‘How do we create that ecosystem that has sustained competition?’” — Additional reporting by Jon Harper