JUST IN: Supply Chain Can’t Support DoD’s Hypersonics Goals, Report Finds

By Josh Luckenbaugh

NDIA illustration

The Defense Department is investing heavily in the development of hypersonic weapons, but a clearer demand signal to industry is needed to develop a sufficient supply chain and subsequently field these systems, according to a new report released May 11.

Hypersonic weapons can fly at least five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5, allowing them to “deliver long-range lethal effects on short time scales,” said the Emerging Technologies Institute’s report “Hypersonics Supply Chains: Securing the Path to the Future.” ETI is an affiliate of the National Defense Industrial Association.

“American development of hypersonic capabilities is nonnegotiable,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., during the report’s launch event on May 11. “This is a technology that was born in America but is being perfected by China and Russia.”

Congress appropriated nearly $6 billion for hypersonics in the fiscal year 2023 defense budget, according to the ETI report. Department leadership has said the United States needs hundreds of hypersonics “in a short period of time,” and potentially even thousands or tens of thousands, the report said. However, “the existing hypersonic manufacturing base and testing infrastructure is insufficient to meet the needs of the future,” the report said.

One significant barrier to scaling the hypersonics industrial base cited by industry and academia representatives is the lack of a clear, consistent demand signal from the Defense Department, the report said.

“Over the years, DoD has wavered in its commitment to fielding hypersonic systems at scale,” Rebecca Wostenberg, an ETI research fellow and the lead author of the report, said during the launch event. “Over time, the government demand signal has varied greatly, leading to a small hypersonics manufacturing base with limited suppliers suited only for manufacturing limited numbers of hypersonic systems with long lead times.

“Companies must know that they will receive a return on investment,” she continued. “Industry … is eager to invest in hypersonics technology, but the business case must exist for companies to invest in the necessary infrastructure and personnel.”

The report recommended the Defense Department “treat certain hypersonic programs as programs of record … by including funding in the Department of Defense annual budget request to move them to production and deployment,” as well as utilizing multi-year procurement contracts to “not only send a clear demand signal but one that also extends into the future.”

Another challenge is the supply chain for critical raw materials and goods, the most important of which for hypersonics are high-temperature materials such as carbon fiber, carbon-carbon composites and tantalum, the report said.

High-temperature materials have a plethora of applications for hypersonics, such as heat shields, thermal protection systems, components for rocket or scramjet engines, nozzles and leading edges — in fact, carbon-carbon is the “only option for coatings for the higher speed hypersonic systems,” the report said. However, the lack of a consistent market for carbon-carbon, in particular, has led to a very small and fragile supply base, the report added, which could cause major issues for scaling hypersonic weapon production.

On the flip side, solid rocket motors for both hypersonic and conventional systems use many “common materials,” and the defense industry must compete with commercial companies for those goods, leading to long lead times, said Jason Fischer, Northrop Grumman’s market area lead for high speed tactical boosters.

Commercial industry’s “need greatly outweighs our small orders,” he said. “So, it is very difficult to try to get priority and to get those materials promptly.”

The defense industry and the Defense Department have begun to explore options to shore up supply chain vulnerabilities, but “these efforts [need] to be expanded and fully resourced,” the report said.

Along with shoring up the industrial base and supply chain, the United States should expand upon existing international partnerships — particularly with Australia and Canada — related to hypersonics, the report said.

“What is one of our big advantages in the West? It's friends, partners and allies,” said Dr. Mark Lewis, CEO of the Purdue Applied Research Institute and former director of ETI. “It's the incredibly rich [science-and-technology] community that includes [partners] beyond our borders, and hypersonics is the poster child for that.”

The United States is already working with Australia on hypersonic research as part of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States trilateral agreement, as well as the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment. These agreements “provide a solid foundation, but to facilitate regular day-to-day partnerships, an overarching project agreement is important,” the report said.

Additionally, both Australia and Canada can help the United States “diversify critical raw material supply, which currently relies heavily on China” and can help “address testing infrastructure shortages both in the short-term and long-term,” the report said.

While there are no quick fixes for the issues in the hypersonics supply chain, “action must be taken today” to address them and ensure the United States can effectively field these systems, the report said.

“The demand signal from Congress is here, and it's only going to get stronger,” Lamborn said. “The [fiscal year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act] will make that clear.”


Topics: Emerging Technologies

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