What’s Next for Hypersonics? Portfolio Trades, Programs of Record, Producibility & Beyond

 In Avascent Proving Ground

Hypersonics weapons have become a high priority for the Department of Defense due to their unique ability to deter adversary use of similar strategic weapons as well as their ability to strike high-value, time-critical targets in highly defended environments.

As one of the key offset strategies against anti-access, area-denial bubbles, they have seen significant investment growth over the past 5 years.

2020 proved a momentous year for US DoD hypersonics initiatives. In the past year alone, the US hypersonics community saw an escalation in the testing and validation of prototypes, an acceleration of partnership with allies, and a flurry of industry M&A that will impact the market.

What hypersonics developments can we expect to see in PBR22 and beyond?

1. Hypersonics programs will compete for resources amid a tightening budget environment.

We can expect to see more discussion of portfolio trades for high-speed weapons, including how hypersonics fit into families of weapons systems that include complementary and potentially alternative systems such as ‘high supersonic’ missiles.

We may also gain greater insight into the Department’s counter-hypersonics roadmap, which has seen less investment than offensive weapons to date.

2. DoD’s desire to transition hypersonics efforts from protypes to programs of record will drive focus on manufacturing enhancements, testing, and platform integration.

3. Department leadership has increasingly emphasized the need to shore up the defense innovation base’s ability to securely keep pace with demands for modernization across technologies, including hypersonics.

Key focus areas will include bolstering industrial base capacity and supply chain security, investing in the workforce required to support hypersonics programs, and harnessing the benefits – while minimizing the risks – of industrial consolidation.

DoD Hypersonics Portfolio Tradeoffs & Investment Strategies

1. Prioritization of High-Speed Munitions in Emerging Budget Environment

The Biden Administration’s DoD leadership team and the Service Chiefs have communicated an appetite to divest legacy systems in order to free resources for modernization and outpace near-peer threats.

This focus on modernization – and cross-Service CONOPS that seek to maximize standoff, precision strike – bode well for continued investment in hypersonics weapons.

The extent to which hypersonic investment will increase, taper, or decline, however, will hinge on a series of fiscal, mission, and programmatic priorities.

We expect to see intense bipartisan negotiations on defense spending levels, tempering growth prospects but avoiding the drastic cuts reminiscent of the Budget Control Act era. The exact scale of topline growth will inform the degree to which hypersonic programs can accelerate.

Additionally, while working on a new National Defense Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review, DoD will decide which programs are first among equals beneath the “next-gen” umbrella.

Ranging from hypersonic weapons to nuclear recapitalization to key air (F-35, KC-46, B-21), sea (Columbia-, Ford-class), and space programs, there is no shortage of “next gen” Congressional and industrial equities competing for budgetary protection.

2. Portfolio Trades

DoD will also seek to sharpen its vision for employing hypersonic weapons in future CONOPS and justify the unique value hypersonics bring to bear in the future fight.

DoD leaders have highlighted hypersonic weapons’ potential to hold adversary assets at risk from ranges and vectors that current systems cannot – a compelling value proposition. This proposition, however, must be demonstrated and validated by flight tests in 2021 and beyond.

Even with range, survivability, and speed advantages, hypersonics will be weighed against

  • Cost,
  • Size, and
  • Platforming drawbacks.

To succeed, Service stakeholders must demonstrate that hypersonic weapons are non-tradeable in emerging CONOPS and can complement legacy strike investments (JASSM, Tomahawk) as well as emerging ‘high supersonic’ solutions like SiAW and SPEAR.

The Army, for example, has positioned its Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon program as one solution within its Long-Range Precision Fires portfolio, which also includes Precision Strike Missile and Mid-Range Capability efforts.

Within offensive hypersonic weapons, Services face further choices between boost-glide and hypersonic airbreathing cruise missile flight regimes.

Though less mature than boost-glide programs, emerging hypersonic cruise missiles are expected to be more affordable and easily integrated across a broader range of platforms (fighters, bombers, ships).

Unclassified Department investment in the hypersonics portfolio has prioritized offensive weapons to both “match” adversaries’ much publicized advances and to assemble a credible conventional strategic deterrent, particularly via the acceleration of the Common-Hypersonic Glide Body in support of the Conventional Prompt Strike and Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon boost-glide efforts.

2021 may also provide greater insight into whether DoD finally surges investment in the counter-hypersonic mission.

Even with greater prioritization, emerging counter-hypersonics concepts will face scrutiny of their affordability and compete with other missile defense investments such as Next Generation Interceptor.

Co-Investment with Allies to Offset Development Costs

While the U.S. will likely lead western adoption of hypersonics in timeline and scale, it will eye opportunities to defray the investment burden with partners.

To do so, we anticipate further reliance on DoD’s Allied Prototyping Initiative. Created in 2019, the program seeks to accelerate allied development and coordination for key defense technologies.

Early efforts include

The coming years may also see DoD collaboration with additional allies. Japan has announced plans for adoption of both boost glide and airbreathing hypersonic missiles, and South Korea has indicated similar ambitions. Their ongoing investment and U.S. defense ties creates a natural fit for API partnerships.

Finally, investment by European players, such as MBDA and Reaction Engines, creates potential for future US-European engagement.

For example, AFRL and the UK’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory are collaborating on a “Thresher” hypersonic experimentation effort.

However, growing European focus on shoring up its own industrial base for missiles and other defense technologies may present obstacles to tighter cross-Atlantic industrial coordination.

Shifts from Prototypes to Programs of Record

1. Manufacturing Innovations

As the DoD seeks to shift from producing small numbers of prototype units to standing up scalable programs of record, it is evaluating options for enhancing manufacturing of hypersonics systems.

Several DoD stakeholders, including the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Navy, are funding efforts to enhance manufacturing of high temperature carbon/carbon and other composite components and subsystems through innovations that automate manual processes, reduce cost/cycle time, and increase yield.

Industry is also allocating substantial internal research and development resources to this effort.

For example, Spirit AeroSystems has cited efforts to apply commercial aerospace manufacturing processes to industrialize the production of high-temperature material components currently made by FMI, which Spirit acquired last year.

In addition to composites, DoD stakeholders including AFRL are funding efforts to improve additive manufacturing of high-temperature metals, which will be especially critical for producing the scramjet engines in hypersonic cruise missiles.

Industry also points to its own investment efforts, with Northrop Grumman publicizing that it has leveraged additive manufacturing for the scramjet in Raytheon’s HAWC prototype and Aerojet Rocketdyne acquiring 3DMT in part to optimize additive manufacturing of hypersonic propulsion systems.

Additionally, DARPA has assessed options to accelerate manufacturing through a Hypersonic Production Accelerator Facility.

The HPAF would co-locate hypersonics manufacturing processes to reduce complexity and shrink extended development and testing timelines that derive from sourcing parts and processes from a large set of geographically dispersed providers.

2. Testing & Platforming Decisions

In addition to improving manufacturability of missiles, DoD seeks to enhance and expand testing options to ensure timely refinement and validation of missile designs.

Recently, the Arnold Engineering Development Complex has upgraded wind tunnels to include weather and other effects testing and completed an eight-year improvement to its 16ft supersonic wind tunnel with plans to extend capability into the hypersonic regime.

DoD is also looking to build out wind tunnel capabilities in academia, demonstrated by USAF’s 2020 award to Purdue to develop a quiet Mach 8 wind tunnel. Outlined within the FY21 NDAA, the Army is enhancing testing infrastructure at Redstone Arsenal, partnering with local academia and industry to develop advanced hypersonic testing facilities.

We also expect to see an increase in the pace of live flight tests and exploration of new platforming approaches.

The Air Force has conducted captive carry flights of the AGM-183 ARRW missile to validate platform integration onto the B-52 and is expected to conduct flight tests this year.

ARRW tests are also expected on the B-1, which has undergone expanded carriage demonstrations in part to prove its capacity to host hypersonic weapons.

Beyond the bomber fleet, USAF is also exploring ARRW integration onto fighters, including the F-15EX. All of these tests are aimed to help realize USAF’s goal of ARRW reaching initial operating capability by the end of 2022.

Additionally, smaller hypersonic cruise missiles such as the DARPA HAWC prototypes and emerging AFLCMC HACM program could be employed by a broader set of platforms, though successful flight tests will likely be required to generate momentum for future platform integration opportunities.

For its part, the Army attempt to deliver its first hypersonic ‘capability’ to a unit by September of this year.

While lacking live rounds, the capability will include the truck, trailer, launcher, training canisters, and battle operations center required to begin end-to-end kill chain training and preparation for the first joint flight campaign test with the Navy by the first quarter of FY22.

The unit will also prepare for test flights in 4th quarter FY22 and 2nd quarter FY23. Assuming the tests are successful, the Army plans to equip the unit with live missiles in late FY23.

Lastly, the Navy is exploring – with a push from Congress – options to integrate larger missile classes onto ships, including the potential integration of Conventional Prompt Strike onto Zumwalt-class DDG-1000 destroyers.

These assessments build on rapidly progressing development efforts that will see CPS fielded on Virginia-class submarines within the 2020s.

Beyond maritime platform integration, the Navy is also exploring high supersonic ramjet systems such as SPEAR that would be more easily integrated onto the carrier aviation fleet.

Industrial Base Health

1. Industrial Base Capacity & Security

As DoD transitions from prototype and demonstration efforts to programs of record and production ramp-up, it will seek to ensure that industry can scale production in a secure manner.

In recent years, Service stakeholders, such as former Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy, have called for industry to increase investment in manufacturing processes and equipment required to produce hypersonic weapons at scale.

Several key industry players have publicly pointed toward large-scale investments in hypersonics manufacturing, and the greater Huntsville area in particular stands to benefit as demonstrated by Lockheed Martin’s Courtland and Dynetics’ MidCity hypersonics assembly facilities.

In addition to increasing manufacturing capacity, DoD will seek to reduce risks in the hypersonics industrial base that stem from a variety of sources, ranging from over-reliance on foreign sources for critical materials such as ceramic matrix composite inputs to suppliers’ COVID-driven financial upheaval, as outlined in OSD’s 2020 Industrial Capabilities report.

2. Growing Focus on Workforce

DoD also seeks to ensure that industry has access to the human capital required to scale emerging programs and innovate for future increments.

In particular, OSD’s 2020 Industrial Capabilities report cites an aging hypersonics workforce and the exit of missile and manufacturing talent for other industries as key challenges.

Workforce efforts will focus on both replenishing human capital in light of retirement surges and investing in specific skillsets that will be critical for design and production efforts.

Increasing collaboration with academia to foster workforce development is one focus of DoD’s hypersonic workforce strategy.

In addition to advancing specific technology enablers such as physics-based design tools for hypersonic weapons, the DoD’s University Consortium for Applied Hypersonics managed by Texas A&M will seed a talent pool that can then feed DoD and industry workforce pipelines.

Industry firms such as Lockheed Martin are also standing up their own university engagement initiatives to simultaneously advance research and development and create pathways for hypersonic talent recruitment.

As concluded in the National Defense Industry Association’s 2021 industrial base health survey, industry has also pointed to backlogs in the security clearance process as a key impediment to accessing skilled labor across defense sectors.

Given sensitivities of hypersonics programs, sufficient access to cleared personnel will certainly be a key workforce challenge that DoD must address moving forward.

Impact of Industry Consolidation and Vertical Integration on Hypersonics

The past several years have also seen several mergers and acquisitions that will impact – and in some cases were directly driven toward – the munitions market, and specifically the hypersonics segment.

Acquisitions by large integrators of previously small, resource-constrained companies – such as Leidos’ acquisition of Dynetics, Lockheed Martin’s acquisition of i3, and Spirit’s acquisition of FMI – will enable these firms to better bridge the valley of death from development to production efforts and scale up to meet production needs.

Integrators are also vertically integrating larger portions of the weapons systems value chain. Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman point to the design benefits of integrating Aerojet Rocketdyne and Orbital ATK’s respective propulsion capabilities, while Raytheon and UTC have touted the value of bringing missile integration, seeker, payload, high-temperature materials, and commercial engine expertise under one house.

These integrators argue that vertical integration provides cost, schedule, and technology benefits to the customer, including a larger collective pool of resources to invest in discriminating technologies such as advanced propulsion and high-temperature materials.

DoD leadership, however, will seek to ensure that consolidation does not impede competition in the hypersonics market. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Hicks referenced at her recent confirmation hearing, DoD will look to set up proactive measures to ensure new entrants can feasibly compete for design and production opportunities, even without the resources available to larger firms.

Subscribe to the Avascent Proving Ground

We invite you to subscribe to the Avascent Proving Ground – Insights delivered to your inbox on critical issues shaping the Defense industry’s future.

Start typing and press Enter to search