America’s biggest defense contractors are finding a growth market in hypersonic weaponry — missiles that could dodge air defenses by flying five times the speed of sound — as U.S. military leaders have repeatedly described deploying such weapons as a national priority.
They are hoping to profit from an international arms race in hypersonic weaponry that has drawn the United States into a Cold War-style competition with Russia and China.
With military officials hoping to transition from research and development to the more cash-intensive production work over the next several years, top U.S. defense contractors are jockeying for position. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and Boeing are among the companies developing hypersonic weapons.
Much of the work is classified. But executives from several large U.S. defense contractors say they are already receiving billions of dollars in related military contract funding.
“These systems are going to be deployed in a few years,” Wes Kremer, president of Raytheon’s missile systems division, said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. He added that such weapons would allow the U.S. military to “reach out further, and strike faster.”
Lockheed Martin chief executive Marillyn Hewson disclosed last week that her company has received roughly $3.5 billion in defense contracts related to hypersonic weapons. Lockheed is the primary contractor for the Army’s hypersonic strike program.
Raytheon is also a top contender, with roughly $1.6 billion in current and expected awards. The company recently announced it had completed a successful “design review” for a hypersonic missile program it is working on with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA.
The missile is meant to function as a “boost-glide” vehicle, meaning it can fire its engines for periods of time before slowing down, allowing it to maneuver. It also contributes to long-range hypersonic strike programs operated by the Army and Navy.
And Northrop Grumman’s new Innovation Systems business unit — formed from the recently acquired assets of a company called Orbital ATK — is establishing itself as a leading provider of hypersonic rocket engines, signing lucrative partnerships with Lockheed and Raytheon.
Most of the current funding for hypersonic weaponry applies to “offensive” strike weapons, those studying the market say. However some executives say the market for countering those weapons could eventually prove to be much larger, as America’s missile defense system realigns itself for a new threat.
Northrop Grumman chief executive Kathy Warden told investors last week the counter-hypersonic weapons are “an area that we are aggressively pursuing,” noting the company would still partner with its competitors when it makes sense. She said the company is “rapidly establishing itself as the prime” contender in the counter-hypersonic weapons market.
Raytheon chief executive Thomas Kennedy said in a recent call with investors that he believes the “counter-hypersonic” weapons could be much more lucrative, because it would rely on a complex layer of sensors and communications.
Boeing spokeswoman Deborah VanNierop declined to disclose how much funding the company had received for hypersonic technology. However, the company said it has received contracts from the Missile Defense Agency to develop concepts for hypersonic defense. Last year the company unveiled two concepts for hypersonic aircraft, VanNierop said, and it has already developed its own hypersonic vehicles, including the X-15, X-43, X-51A, X-37 and HIFiRE 4.