Hypersonic Glide Vehicle Test Kicks Off Long 'Test Season' of Evaluation
(Source: US Department of Defense; issued June 18, 2020)
A common hypersonic glide body launches from Pacific Missile Range Facility on March 19, 2020. Data gathered during the test will inform ongoing development of systems designed to defend against adversaries’ hypersonic weapons. (DoD photo)
The March 19 test of a hypersonic glide body at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii is just the start for the Defense Department, the assistant director for hypersonics in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering said, and after ample flight testing, the department will move toward developing weapons from the concepts it's been testing.
"Over the next 12 months really what we will see is continued acceleration of the development of offensive hypersonic systems," Michael E. White said today during an online panel discussion hosted by Defense One.
Hypersonic weapons move faster than anything currently being used, giving adversaries far less time to react, and they provide a much harder target to counteract with interceptors. White said DOD is developing hypersonic weapons that can travel anywhere between Mach 5 and Mach 20.
The March test of the hypersonic glide body successfully demonstrated a capability to perform intermediate-range hypersonic boost, glide and strike, he said. That test, White added, begins a "very active flight test season" over the next year, and beyond, to take concepts now under development within the department and prove them with additional tests.
"A number of our programs across the portfolio will realize flight test demonstration over the next 12 months and then start the transition from weapon system concept development to actual weapon system development moving forward," he said.
Also part of the department's efforts is the defense against adversary use of hypersonic missile threats — and that may involve space, said Navy Vice Adm. Jon Hill, director of the Missile Defense Agency. Land-, silo-, or air-launched hypersonic weapons all challenge the existing U.S. sensor architecture, Hill said, and so new sensors must come online.
"We have to work on sensor architecture," Hill said. "Because they do maneuver and they are global, you have to be able to track them worldwide and globally. It does drive you towards a space architecture, which is where we're going."
DOD is now working with the Space Development Agency on the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor to address tracking of hypersonics, the admiral said. That system is part of the larger national defense space architecture.
"As ballistic missiles increase in their complexity ... you're going to be able to look down from cold space onto that warm earth and be able to see those," he said. "As hypersonics come up and look ballistic initially, then turn into something else, you have to be able to track that and maintain track. In order for us to transition from indications and warning into a fire control solution, we have to have a firm track and you really can't handle the global maneuver problem without space."
Hill said the department already has had a prototype of such satellites in space for some time, and is collecting data from it. In the early 2020s, he added, additional satellites will also go up to demonstrate tracking ability.
DOD Has Pedal to the Metal on Hypersonics
(Source: US Department of Defense; issued June 18, 2020)
Hypersonic missiles are a technology the Defense Department must field to remain competitive with other great powers, said the director of defense research and engineering for modernization.
Mark J. Lewis, who spoke with Marcus Weisgerber at the Defense One Tech Summit yesterday, noted that Russia has announced fielding a hypersonic capability and that China is investing heavily in the technology.
Hypersonic missiles are fast — very fast — and agile in a way that ballistic missiles or cruise missiles are not. He said the U.S. goal is to have the technology fielded at scale by the mid-2020s.
The Defense Department has one main effort by the services, and DOD agencies have parts because hypersonics is more than just one thing, said Lewis, who holds a doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The Army and the Navy both have very active programs as well looking at ways to develop this technology," he said. "Our key here is we want to deliver hypersonics at scale; and by that I mean, we want to go beyond the prototypes."
That means bridging the proverbial "valley of death" between a research effort and a funded and viable service program that leads to a capability, he explained.
"We all have this firm, fixed goal of delivering capability," Lewis said. "These are no longer science projects, are no longer things that are being confined to the lab. So with that mindset, across the range of activities that we’re involved in, I think we're making headway in bridging that that valley."
He noted that the Air Force is working with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency on the Arrow program. Scientists in both organizations are working closely together and solving problems together and sharing information.
At one time, the United States had the lead in hypersonic research. He noted the Air Force X-51 program, which last flew in 2013 and then was discontinued. It was a different world then, Lewis said, and the decision at the time was to not invest in the technology.
"I think now we have leadership at all levels of the Pentagon — but coming from the front office — recognizing the importance of this technology, and realizing we need to put our foot on the proverbial gas," he said. "That's that's certainly what's driving this."
What was once a walk in the park has become a race with near-peer competitors, Lewis said. "We kind of did the homework for the rest of the world," he said.
U.S. researchers did the original work on hypersonics and early development. "And then, because we took our foot off the gas, other people were able to pick up on what we had done and build on our successes," he said.
Those nations — Russia and China most obviously — recognized the importance of the technology and began their own programs.
Now, the United States must not only build an offensive capability, but also must handle the defensive portion, Lewis said. "The defensive part is absolutely critical as we go forward," he added. "If I'm going to defend against hypersonic systems, there are a couple of key things that I need to do. The very first thing I need to do is to be able to detect a hypersonic weapon flying at me and respond quickly enough."
DOD — via the Space Development Agency — is investing in this capability.
Once detected, there must be a response. "Let me not get into specific weapon systems, but I can say that depending on the hypersonic weapon … they each have their own responses," he said. "It is very difficult to stop a hypersonic weapon. That's why we want to pursue them. That's why our peer competitors are pursuing them. But it's not impossible."
Some existing technologies may be used, he said, as may some technologies in development. "So, there are answers, there are solutions, but it's definitely an area that we see a need for increased effort," he said.