At a recent gathering at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, two of the Pentagon’s highest-ranking weapons-buyers sent a clear message to a packed room of defense executives.
America is racing Russia and China to develop a worldwide hypersonic strike weapon that can reach anywhere in the world within hours, they said, and it’s time for American defense contractors to move from science and research to full-scale production of those systems.
Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who is now the deputy secretary of defense, said, “This is really about industrialization, not about science."
And Michael Griffin, a physicist who is undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said U.S. defense contractors should start preparing to churn out finished hypersonic weapons in the next few years.
“This is not primarily a research effort,” Griffin said. “It is an effort to get these systems into the field in the thousands. … We are going to have to create a new industrial base for these systems.”
Hypersonic systems can travel many times the speed of sound, or more than a mile per second. If fielded, they could allow the U.S. military to neutralize targets anywhere on Earth in little more than an hour. Officials have suggested that such a capability could be used to quickly destroy a hostile nation’s nuclear launch sites or conduct precision strikes against leaders of terrorist organizations. The Army, Navy and Air Force each have separate programs to develop and field them under an effort known as Prompt Global Strike.
But the United States may be playing catch-up in a global hypersonics arms race, officials and analysts say. Russian President Vladimir Putin has boasted that the country has developed high-speed nuclear-tipped missiles that can navigate the Earth below the atmosphere, something that would frustrate missile defense systems.
China is thought to have hypersonic capabilities of its own. In a review of over 20,000 patent filings related to hypersonics research, the data analytics firm Govini found that the number of patents filed related to hypersonics research in China increased about 24 percent each year between 2011 and 2016. The number of patent filings in Russia and the United States declined over the same period, Govini found.
To catch up, U.S. officials have referred to hypersonic weapons as their “first, second, and third" weapons development priorities. The Pentagon’s 2019 budget called for increased funding for a key hypersonics program from $201 million in 2018 to $278 million in 2019, with close to $2 billion allocated to the program. Govini found that U.S. contract funding for hypersonics research and development was close to $350 million in 2017, more than double the 2011 amount.
Analysts and arms-control experts are concerned about the potential destabilizing effect these weapons could have. Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat-reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, says he is worried the new weapons could be mistaken for nuclear missiles, increasing the risk of a misunderstanding among nuclear-capable countries.
“In my mind, just because Russia and China are rushing to deploy these systems does not mean we need to do so as well,” Reif said. “I’m seeing the technology driving this investment rather than a particularly well-thought-out rationale based on the costs and risks.”
For defense contractors, the hypersonics arms race is seen as a growth market. Loren Thompson, a prominent defense analyst who works with Lockheed Martin and Boeing, said the hypersonics market should be worth “many billions of dollars” in the long run.
“We’re talking about an entirely new class of weapons and the operating concepts to go with it,” he said.
Developing and testing hypersonic systems requires highly specialized knowledge and expertise, however, meaning the market is limited to a few large companies. In a November interview with the trade publication Inside Defense, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) said that the United States had just a single wind tunnel capable of adequately testing hypersonic systems, for example.
Analysts say there are just four companies with sufficient resources and know-how to produce hypersonic weapons: Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.
Lockheed Martin appears to have emerged as an early leader based on published contract documents, though its competitors could have significant unseen business in the classified space.
In April it was awarded a $900 million contract to develop a hypersonic strike weapon for the Air Force. The company also won a $480 million Air Force contract for what is known as the Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW, and it has some research work with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s research arm. Those contracts add up to $1.5 billion in potential hypersonics work for the company, Lockheed Martin chief executive Marillyn Hewson said at a recent investor conference.
On Nov. 21, the Navy announced it will also turn to Lockheed Martin for a sole-source contract to build the rocket motors and missile bodies that will be used in test flights of its own submarine-launched hypersonic weapons program. And in early November, the Defense Department directed the Navy to set up a formal program office for the project, signaling that it wants the Navy’s submarine-launched hypersonic weapons to move from a research project to a full-fledged long-term military program.
Doug Graham, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for advanced programs, said the company currently employs hundreds of people working on hypersonics programs. He expects that number to eventually swell into the thousands.
“This is an area that we have been involved in for a long time,” Graham said. “Particularly in the last 10 years we have been preparing for the time when this becomes a high priority for the U.S. government. And I think we’ve reached that here in the last couple of years.”
Thomas Bussing, a former DARPA official who is now a vice president at Raytheon, said his company has invested tens of millions of dollars into hypersonic systems over the past decade.
“From a pure business perspective, there is a significant opportunity in the hypersonic domain,” he said. “These are game-changing systems.”
The National Defense Industrial Association, a trade association that lobbies on behalf of defense companies, hosted the meeting with Shanahan and Griffin on Dec. 13. It was the first in a series of meetings the group is terming the Hypersonics Community of Influence.
Even as the United States prepares to field hypersonic strike weapons, the missile defense systems that would halt such systems are in their earliest phases of development.
The Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency recently awarded contracts to 21 different companies to further develop early research plans for hypersonic missile defense systems.
Boeing’s research into the subject includes a paper on how laser weapons could be used to zap hypersonic missiles out of the sky. Lockheed Martin is working on concept design for a “Space Based Hypersonic Defender,” according to public government contract documents.
Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and L3 Technologies are exploring “non-kinetic” defense systems, a military term that refers to some form of non-physical attack, such as electronic warfare. Raytheon and Lockheed are exploring hypersonic missile interceptors, early concepts bearing names such as “Valkyrie” and “SkyFire.”
Griffin said the United States is “years … not months, not decades,” away from having a workable missile defense system that can stop hypersonic missiles. "I think we’ll have a workable defensive capability by the middle of the decade,” Griffin said in a recent briefing.
In the meantime, analysts say most of the U.S. funding for hypersonic weaponry is going toward precision strike weapons. Govini chief executive Chris Taylor says “nearly all” of the Department’s “true” hypersonics investment is in developing so-called offensive systems as opposed to missile defense systems.
“Offensive development is getting [the] most funding,” Taylor said in an email last week. “As with any DoD investment, getting the most promising discoveries through the development cycle as quickly as possible and into the hands of warfighters is imperative.”
Part of the reason, analysts say, is that offensive systems are technically easier and cheaper.
“The defense in general is getting harder and more expensive than the offense,” said Bill LaPlante, a former procurement official who is now a senior vice president focusing on national security at MITRE.
U.S. adversaries “can spend far less money to make [the United States] spend a lot more money to counter it,” said Bussing, the Raytheon executive.