Years after Kicking Off, U.S. Hypersonic Programs Still in Development (UPDATED)
It was some eight years ago in September 2015 when reports emerged that China had tested a high-speed drone called the WZ-8 that was designed to reach hypersonic speeds.
That event was a watershed moment for the Pentagon, which had let U.S. hypersonic research-and-development lapse over the decades as it fought the so-called global war on terror.
Soon after, Russia made its own claims that it had deployed missiles reaching hypersonic speeds, generally defined as more than Mach 5, but with the added ability to maneuver and evade defenses.
The realization that the two competitors were actively pursuing the high-speed, maneuverable weapons prompted the Defense Department to reignite its own R&D programs within the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
But eight years after the Chinese test, how much progress has the U.S. military made developing its own hypersonic weapon systems?
“We are in a race whether we choose to acknowledge it or not,” said Mark Lewis, chief executive officer of the Purdue Applied Research Institute, at a media event in June.
The Defense Department has focused in recent years on two approaches: glide vehicles and cruise missiles, according to the Congressional Research Service report “Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress,” released in February.
Hypersonic boost-glide missiles consist of a rocket motor, which accelerates the missile to a high speed, and a glide body containing a warhead. Once the glide body detaches from the spent rocket, it uses kinetic energy, as well as lift generated by its movement through the air, to coast at high speed through the atmosphere and maneuver to hit its target, according to a description in the report “U.S. Hypersonic Weapons and Alternatives,” published by the Congressional Budget Office in January.
A rocket booster initially accelerates a hypersonic cruise missile to speeds approaching Mach 4, then boosts and maintains a higher speed throughout its flight using a jet engine called a supersonic combustion ramjet, or scramjet, that can take it toward Mach 5.
Hypersonic missiles are launched one of three ways: from the air via aircraft in flight, from the ground via fixed or vehicle-based launchers and from the sea, via surface ships or submarines.
The Army is striking from the ground. Partnered with the Navy, the service is developing the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon.
The weapon is a ground-launched boost-glide missile, equipped with a hypersonic glide body and associated transport, support and fire control equipment, according to the Congressional Research Service report “The U.S. Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon,” published in March.
The Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon has a range of 1,725 miles and is armed with hypersonic missiles that can travel “well over 3,800 miles per hour,” the report said.
The missile component — being developed by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — serves as the common two-stage booster for both the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon and the Navy’s hypersonic system, which is intended to be fired from both surface vessels and submarines, the report stated.
Despite a number of testing delays, the Army appears to be ahead of the other services’ hypersonics programs and remains publicly committed to fielding its first operational prototype by the end of fiscal year 2023, the Congressional Research Service report stated.
When all is said and done, the service plans to invest $5.3 billion of past and planned research, development, test and evaluation funding into the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon program, the CBO report stated.
The Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike system is a boost-glide hypersonic weapon that includes a two-stage solid rocket motor booster and a common hypersonic glide body containing a kinetic energy projectile warhead, according to the Office of the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation’s fiscal year 2022 annual report on the system. It will use kinetic energy rather than explosives to destroy its targets.
The Defense Department announced in 2018 that the Navy would lead the development of the common hypersonic glide body for use across the services, according to the February CRS report.
The service currently has a three-phase acquisition strategy to deliver the system, consisting of rapid prototyping, rapid fielding and eventual fielding on board Virginia-class submarines and Zumwalt-class destroyers, the test-and-evaluation report said.
Flight testing for the Conventional Prompt Strike system began in June 2022, and the Navy has four testing events planned through the end of fiscal year 2024 following an “in-flight anomaly” that disrupted data collection during a previous test, the report said. The Navy plans to transition to rapid fielding aboard the Zumwalt-class destroyer in fiscal year 2025, with initial operating capability aboard the Virginia-class submarines in fiscal year 2029, the report stated.
The program is also constructing a subsurface test facility that will allow it to see how the missile transits through the water after it is deployed by a submarine using the newly developed Conventional Prompt Strike launcher, according to program background information provided by the Navy.
Additionally, the Navy is developing the Offensive Anti-Surface War Increment 2, a missile also known as Hypersonic Air-Launched, or HALO — a new start in 2023, the February Congressional Research Service report stated. Although few details about the program have been released publicly, HALO is likely to be compatible with the Navy’s F/A-18 fighter jet. The Congressional Budget Office cited funding documents indicating the Navy plans to field the missiles starting in 2028.
The service’s research, development, test and evaluation funding for Conventional Prompt Strike is expected to reach “at least” $8.9 billion with “at least” $444 million poured into HALO, the Congressional Budget Office stated.
The Air Force has struggled with its hypersonics efforts, in particular the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon and the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon. The service canceled the latter in February 2020, citing budget pressures that forced it to choose between the two systems.
The air-launched weapon would employ DARPA’s Tactical Boost Glide technology to develop an air-launched hypersonic glide vehicle prototype that could travel at speeds between Mach 6.5 and 8, the CRS report stated. But its fate looks bleak.
Andrew Hunter, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, told lawmakers in March that the Air Force does not currently intend to pursue follow-on procurement of the weapon once the prototyping program concludes.
The service’s most promising program — the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile — would also integrate DARPA technologies, the CRS report stated.
Introduced to the public in fiscal year 2022, the missile is a scramjet-powered, air-launched hypersonic weapon, with much of its design and scheduling details still under wraps. It is smaller than the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, with the Congressional Budget Office report estimating the range at about 300 miles. Air Force budget documents indicate the cruise missile program will prioritize integration on the F-15E jet fighter to enable quick entry into flight test.
The Air Force plans to deliver the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile by fiscal year 2027, a service release said. It awarded a prototyping contract in 2022 to Raytheon Missiles and Defense. The success of the program will depend on adequate funding, with the service requesting $317 million in fiscal year 2023, up from 2022’s $200 million request, the CRS report stated.
The program is described further in budget documents as aiming to achieve a long-range, prompt strike capability, building on technology developed through DARPA’s Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept program, the Congressional Budget Office report said.
A joint effort with the Air Force, the Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept is one of several contributions DARPA is making to the hypersonics race. The agency seeks to “develop and demonstrate critical technologies to enable an effective and affordable air-launched hypersonic cruise missile,” according to a fact sheet. The program is pursuing flight tests to validate technologies that include advanced air vehicle configurations, hydrocarbon scramjet-powered propulsion, approaches to managing thermal stresses and affordable system design.
DARPA also continues to test the Tactical Boost Glide, a wedge-shaped hypersonic vehicle capable of Mach 7-plus flight that “aims to develop and demonstrate technologies to enable future air-launched, tactical-range hypersonic boost glide systems,” the Congressional Research Service report said.
In addition, the agency’s Operational Fires program seeks to leverage Tactical Boost Glide technologies to develop a ground-launched system that will enable “advanced tactical weapons to penetrate modern enemy air defenses and rapidly and precisely engage critical time sensitive targets,” the report said.
DARPA and the services are players on a much larger team in the hypersonics race, and winning a global competition will require government, industry and academia, according to Nigel Francis, CEO and executive director of Detroit-based national manufacturing innovation institute LIFT.
“My opinion is that the U.S. has the absolute capability to lead the world and always be in front of the world, in relation to anything technological,” Francis said.
Using an automotive analogy, he mused on the harmony of 40,000 parts necessary to make an operational motor car.
“If there’s one screw missing … that product can’t be shipped to a customer because it’s not fit for purpose,” he said. For what he described as the jigsaw puzzle of hypersonic weapons development and manufacturing, small to mid-sized companies within U.S. borders are “very important” to the success of the Defense Department’s efforts, he added.
Hypersonics development poses a host of challenges to industry. Redundancy in the supply base and the ability to scale up with technology that is “very specialized” are inevitable setbacks in such a complex and specialized ecosystem, Francis said. But he’s not worried.
“You can find problems anywhere you look,” he said. “The question to me is, on balance, are we in a good position? And are we ahead of our competition? And the answer is yes to both of those.”
Francis said the nation has “some incredible players on this [hypersonics program] team,” personnel he wouldn’t want working for anyone else. “Let’s just keep them on it and it’s going to come out really good.”
The success of the United States’ programs and its place in the race remains to be seen as testing and fielding play out over the next several years. What ultimately matters is not just keeping up with China and Russia, said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee.
“There are plenty of weapons our adversaries are developing that we are not,” he said during the subcommittee’s March hypersonics hearing. “What matters is how we will use them, not chasing after what our adversaries have just because they have it.” ND
Clarification: A previous version of this story contained an inexact definition of kinetic weapons.
Topics: Defense Department