The U.S. is in a race to develop and deploy hypersonic weapons. It is a race in which it seeks to catch up to its great power competitors, Russia and China. Those countries both see hypersonic weapons as vital to their respective anti-access/area denial strategies. The weapons threaten high-value targets such as U.S. aircraft carriers, main operating airbases, and air and missile defense sites.
The U.S. military cannot afford to fall behind in this capability.
Hypersonic weapons are complex systems. Developing them requires not only expertise in a host of advanced technologies, but also access to sophisticated infrastructure assets such as high-speed wind tunnels and test ranges. It is also a challenge to integrate these new capabilities into the force structures and operating concepts of the military services, and providing those services with the necessary command and control and targeting capabilities. There are only a few defense companies with the range of skills and capabilities needed to make U.S. hypersonic weapons a reality.
What is a hypersonic weapon? They are defined most simply by their speed, as hypersonic weapons fly at Mach-5 or better.
There are two types of hypersonics. The first are hypersonic boost glide vehicles, which are released from a rocket booster and use the rocket’s energy to reach their target. The second are cruise missiles, powered by scramjet or air-breathing engines in order to attain hypersonic speeds.
Not only are hypersonic weapons fast, but they also fly long distances, are highly maneuverable, and spend most of their flight time in the upper atmosphere, where they are less vulnerable to air and missile defenses.
Because they need to survive and operate in extreme temperatures while in flight, hypersonic weapons are much more expensive than classic ballistic missile warheads and cruise missiles. As such, they will be reserved for use against an adversary’s most important and best-defended assets, including hardened command and control nodes, advanced air defenses, mobile missiles, and storage depots.
Russia and China have already deployed hypersonic weapons. Russia has fielded the silo-based Avangard intercontinental hypersonic weapon, the Tsirkon ship-launched hypersonic cruise missile, and the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, the last of which is reported to have been used in Ukraine.
China has deployed both a medium range and an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a hypersonic boost glide vehicle. According to the 2022 Missile Defense Review, “Hypersonic weapons, designed to evade U.S. sensors and defensive systems, pose an increasing and complex threat due to their dual (nuclear/conventional) capable nature, challenging flight profile, and maneuverability.”
The wide range of technologies needed to field hypersonic weapons include computational fluid dynamics; high-temperature materials; high-speed propulsion; aerodynamic design; sensors; RF antennas; and control systems. The advanced and specialized infrastructure needed includes high-speed wind tunnels; test facilities and ranges; installations capable of creating hyperthermic environments; and production lines for exotic materials and unique aerostructures.
The U.S. Programs Picking Up Speed
Thanks to the capabilities of a relatively small number of high-tech defense companies, the U.S. is closing the gap in hypersonic weapons with its great power competitors. Within the next few years, the Pentagon expects to field its first set of hypersonic weapons. First to be deployed will be the Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW), a ground-launched boost-glide weapon with an estimated range of 3,000 km. This will be followed in a few years by the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) that can be launched both from surface ships and from Virginia-class submarines. The Air Force appears to be last in line to deploy a hypersonic weapon, having recently canceled its Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon and shifted its focus to the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM).
U.S. aerospace and defense companies have demonstrated the critical technologies needed to bring hypersonic weapons to the U.S. military. They are also building the necessary engineering, testing, and manufacturing infrastructure. For example, Dynetics, a subsidiary of Leidos, designed and is now producing the Common Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB) for the LRHW and CPS systems. Together with Kratos, Dynetics built the Multi-Service Advanced Capability Hypersonic Test Bed to speed up the process of testing commercially available hypersonic systems. Leidos is well positioned to provide the critical command, control, and communications and near-real-time intelligence that are vital to the use of hypersonic weapons.
The prime contractor for the LRHW is Lockheed Martin. The company has successfully integrated a new All Up Round plus Canister, combining the rocket with the C-HGB. It modified an existing heavy truck as a developmental launcher, and updated existing Army command and control systems. The company is working to integrate the CPS on the Zumwalt destroyer. It is also a major player in air-launched hypersonic missiles.
A third major technology provider for hypersonic weapons is RTX (formerly Raytheon Technologies). The Air Force recently awarded a team led by RTX — and including Northrop Grumman — the contract to develop and demonstrate the HACM. The two companies are also under contract with DARPA to build and fly Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept flight vehicles.
Other aerospace and defense companies including Boeing, General Dynamics, and L3Harris are working on various aspects of hypersonic systems. Boeing is currently working on advanced lightweight materials manufacturing technologies. General Dynamics is supporting Lockheed Martin on its CPS program. With its acquisition of Aerojet, L3Harris is now a major player in hypersonic engine technologies.
Defenses must also be developed to counter the threat of Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons. These include a space-based sensor system to track the fast-flying weapons. Fortunately, Leidos, RTX, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman are adapting existing defense capabilities and investing in new means, such as lasers, with which to defeat hypersonic missile threats.
Dr. Daniel Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Goure is also a Contributing Editor to 19FortyFive.