In the last five years, the Department of Defense has reinvigorated its hypersonic weapons development efforts significantly, moving some of its most promising hypersonic concepts through to the prototyping and testing phase. Now, the Army plans to field its Long Range Hypersonic Weapon by 2023, and the Navy is scheduled to field its Conventional Prompt Strike on surface ships in 2025.
However, the U.S. is still being outpaced on the global stage, and hypersonics experts argue that closing this pacing gap is one of the most paramount, urgent issues facing the nation today.
Potential adversaries have made significant investments in hypersonic technologies, and they’re weaponizing them in a way that poses major national security issues to the U.S. and its allies, according to Dr. Gillian Bussey, special assistant for the Department of the Air Force’s Office of the Chief Scientist.
These adversaries have created long standoff distances and invested in air missile defenses, creating a situation for the U.S. in which we need long range gradual strike capabilities at capacity, she explained.
“We don’t just need the actual capabilities when you look at the numbers of targets that we need to hit to achieve our objectives. We’re not looking at a couple dozen hypersonic weapons. We’re looking at a pretty good number, certainly more than we’re capable of producing now,” Dr. Bussey warned in a panel discussion during the ExecutiveBiz Events Hypersonics Forum.
Dr. Jeffrey Boulware, technical director and deputy division chief for the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Organization, added that delivering one hypersonic weapon to the warfighter is certainly progress, but “what’s a thousand times better is getting the 500th weapon to the warfighter.”
“One weapon is not going to do anything for us, it’s the fleet of weapons that are making a difference for us,” he said.
Currently, high production costs, supply chain issues and pipeline delays are some of the most difficult hurdles to overcome in delivering hypersonics capabilities.
“When you look at the entire process of how technology becomes a fielded weapon system, most steps in that process take too long — whether it’s the S&T development, maturing that S&T, transitioning it, doing testing and evaluation, the acquisition process. It all takes too long and costs too much,” said Dr. Bussey.
Reducing costs and accelerating production times are critical if the U.S. is to catch up to its adversaries in the increasingly competitive area of hypersonics.
Dr. Yvette Weber, associate deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for Science, Technology and Engineering, said, “You can look at our budgets, they are public record, and you can see what we allocate for weapons. If the prices aren’t lower, we simply won’t be able to afford all that we need.”
Another major factor that affects hypersonics development boils down to identifying the appropriate targets. Dr. Weber shared that while Pentagon leaders are still determining the right balance between capacity and capability, they’re placing more emphasis on looking at the whole hypersonics ecosystem and better understanding how each component affects each other.
“Mr. Kendall, our secretary, has really charged us to understand the appropriate targets for hypersonic weapons. Ultimately, the appropriate targets help set our requirements for the number of weapons systems. And then the cost of these weapons play into how many we’ll be able to build,” she explained.
Dr. Boulware argued that getting the requirements piece of the puzzle right is also a key component in the hypersonics pipeline.
Having a robust set of requirements is critical in laying the foundation for a hypersonics program, ensuring that the program has the support it needs from the Joint Staff and allowing the program to progress unimpeded, Dr. Boulware said.
“All the same silly, bureaucratic mess that you sometimes get scrutinizing your program — as that comes to Congress, as your funding is questioned, all those sorts of questions, all those sorts of concerns — you’ve got full on support from the Joint Staff and from services for those programs that come through with a good requirement,” shared Dr. Boulware.
Ultimately, getting hypersonic capabilities at scale and at capacity doesn’t mean just looking at each of these individual components. Dr. Bussey posits that a multifaceted, holistic approach is required to optimize the entire hypersonics ecosystem. Investments need to be made not just across the programs, but also in the fundamental enablers like testing and evaluation, production and S&T; otherwise, the problems that exist may not be solved, just shifted elsewhere in the process.
“You have to look at it holistically because if you are only addressing one of these areas, we risk shifting bottlenecks down the pipeline ,” said Dr. Bussey. “So you need to increase capability and throughput throughout the entire pipeline.”
Unfortunately, some of these bottlenecks already exist in the pipeline. “I can’t agree enough that our testing infrastructure is over stressed at this point,” revealed Dr. Kelly Stephani, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and deputy director of the university’s Center for Hypersonics and Entry Systems Studies.
Dr. Stephani identified the three main thrusts that we should be focused on to deliver capability at capacity as affordable manufacturing, testing at capacity and skilled workforce at capacity.
Along the testing and workforce thrusts, Dr. Stephani said she sees an opportunity within this challenge that perhaps academia can help solve. “We should not only test early and often, but also identify and work with tech transition partners early and often as well in order to enable tech transition of innovations that come through from the university side,” she explained.
Universities could successfully contribute to the testing infrastructure by focusing on smaller facilities that are cheaper to operate and that could in turn serve as a valuable training opportunity for students.
“Once we get students trained in areas of facility operations, instrumentation, diagnostics, analysis, when they are ready to enter the workforce, they bring that to bear and can help to transition academic innovations to enable new capabilities and hypersonic systems,” suggested Dr. Stephani.
The Hypersonics Forum is part of the ExecutiveBiz Event series focused on the DOD’s critical and emerging technologies.
Join us on July 28 for the next installment of the series, the Quantum Technologies Forum, to hear representatives from government, industry and academia discuss the role of quantum technologies in the future of national security, science and defense. Click here to register.