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U.S. Defense Contractors See Hypersonic Ramp-up

 - May 24, 2019, 4:30 AM
Artist rendering of Raytheon's Tactical Boost Glide flight system. (Image: Raytheon)

There has been a major push in the U.S. for the past couple of years for offensive and defensive hypersonic weapons development, including the awarding of more than $3 billion in contracts to major defense contractors Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. There’s good reason: undersecretary of defense for research and engineering Michael Griffin last December at a Washington lecture series warned that other countries are moving faster in that arena than the U.S. “In the last year, China has tested more hypersonic weapons than we have in a decade,” Griffin said. “We’ve got to fix that.” And a weapon that travels a mile per second poses a serious threat to the continent as well as its naval assets at sea.

Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson said on an April 23 earnings call that the company has a cumulative value of Hypersonic Strike Weapons contract awards totaling more than $2.5 billion. The most recent of those awards was what she said was an order for more than $800 million from the Navy to design, develop, build, and integrate technologies to support the flight-test demonstration of a new hypersonic boost-glide weapon system. That contract followed three previous awards for Tactical Boost Glide contract, the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon, and Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, Hewson explained.

Raytheon's most recent public announcement of a contract related to hypersonic weapons came in March, when it announced it had won a $63.3 million contract from the Defense Advance Research Projects Administration (DARPA) for further development of the Tactical Boost Glide hypersonic weapons program. There are others, too, Raytheon director of advanced high-speed weapons Artie Mabbett told AIN. “We’re involved in all of the core vehicle programs that are out there right now, and we have several classified activities, so we really don’t get into number of contracts and things of that nature,” he added. “But we have a mix of both classified and open source contracts in this area.” Raytheon’s involvement in hypersonic weapons research and development goes back five years or more, he said, but in “the last couple of years, as the Department [of Defense] has ramped up activities, so has Raytheon’s involvement in those activities.”  

There are hurdles to developing hypersonic weapons. While Mabbett noted Raytheon has experience with missiles that fly faster than Mach 5, sustained hypersonic flight and moreover, maneuverability of the platform, bring a different set of challenges. They include overcoming prolonged heating of the weapon’s structure and its electronics, modeling the complex geometries and aerodynamics of a hypersonic platform as well as identifying the appropriate materials and methods to manufacture hypersonic craft. However, he added, “we believe that advances in technologies have progressed to a point where we are confident that solutions exist to get a system in the field.” 

Mabbett can’t give a specific date for when Raytheon might field a prototype weapon, but suggested that for the industry as a whole such systems could begin to deploy within the decade. “Within a handful of years there will be systems in the field,” he said. 

Raytheon is also involved in the development of systems that would detect the firing of hypersonic weapons against the U.S. “That’s a big area that’s also being pursued by the government, and rightly so," Mabbett said. "We have various parts of the detection and engagement chain, so Raytheon is looking to bring all of our capabilities to bear to help solve this challenging problem for the Department [of Defense]."