Prototype hypersonic hardware is delivered to soldiers of the 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Field Artillery Brigade, on Oct. 7, 2021, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.

Prototype hypersonic hardware is delivered to soldiers of the 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Field Artillery Brigade, on Oct. 7, 2021, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. U.S. Army / Spc. Karleshia Gater

Defense Business Brief: Hypersonics meeting focuses on speed; DOD previews tech vision; Better arms-test report? And more

The Pentagon’s much-anticipated meeting with the heads of companies working on fast-flying hypersonic weapons has come and gone. Here’s what happened:

The tone of Thursday afternoon’s meeting was much different than some participants had anticipated. Several people with direct knowledge of the meeting said Pentagon officials conveyed a need to speed up development, but did not chew out any companies for the pace so far. But they did say Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s attendance, albeit brief, was significant. The meeting came just hours after U.S. special forces in Syria killed the leader of ISIS, and as NATO forces brace for a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“I think it actually is really telling how much urgency [the Defense Department] is placing on  hypersonics development that this meeting is a priority in this 24-hour period,” one industry source said. 

There was an open dialogue, two industry sources said. Officials were “really looking at understanding the challenges and barriers the industry sees, to accelerating and reducing the cost of hypersonic capabilities,” one said.

Former government and Industry officials have said that dated U.S. testing ranges and infrastructure have slowed hypersonic weapons development.

Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon issued the meeting’s official read-out. 

“Executives from more than a dozen companies of varying scale attended the round table and discussed supply chain and production capacity constraints across markets; the challenges posed by continuing resolutions; access to test facilities; workforce needs; and government acquisition barriers. Participants identified a need to expand access to modeling capabilities and testing facilities in order to adopt a ‘test often, fail fast, and learn’ approach which will accelerate the fielding of hypersonic and counter-hypersonic systems.”

Who was there: Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks chaired the meeting, which was joined by Heidi Shyu, defense undersecretary for research and engineering. “More than a dozen” large prime contractors, suppliers, and startups in attendance, including Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, Boeing, Leidos, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Ensign Bickford, Eagle Pitcher, and Hermeus.

Some advice for the next meeting. In the future, some would like to see the participant list expanded.

“I definitely give credit just for pulling in industry in general, but it felt like a pretty small group,” said Joe Laurienti, founder of Ursa Major, a rocket startup. “The landscape has changed pretty quickly over the last few years and hypersonics and we'd love to see not just prime contractors, but technology developers and those that are actually influencing the higher level of the industrial base.”

Startups argue that they, along with the large companies, are needed to help the United States win the hypersonic weapons race against Russia and China. 

“It's a really broad mission set that requires a lot of players to build, build and test a lot of hardware,” Laurienti said. “And we're just not seeing that in the U.S.”

Before Thursday's meeting, Shyu announced a new Pentagon technology vision, which includes hypersonic weapons. “While strategic competitors are pursuing and rapidly fielding advanced hypersonic missiles, the DoD will develop leap-ahead and cost-effective technologies for our air, land, and sea operational forces,” she wrote in a Feb. 1 memo. Other important tech: Biotechnology, quantum science, wireless networks, advanced materials, AI, autonomy, microelectronics, and directed energy. Read more about it from our friends at NextGov here.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is calling on the Pentagon to publicly release its full weapons testing report. We told you last week how the version released to the public is watered down and doesn’t detail many of the problems with taxpayer-funded military projects. “While some of its findings are appropriately classified, the requirement for an unclassified report has always been the intent of Congress and clearly established in law,” Warren wrote in a Feb. 1 letter to SecDef Austin.

And lastly, the EPA says the Postal Service’s $11.3 billion plan to replace mail trucks with mostly gas-powered newer vehicles doesn’t do enough to protect the environment, the Washington Post reports. “​​The EPA and the White House Council on Environmental Quality sent letters to the Postal Service on Wednesday that urge it to reconsider plans to buy mostly gas-powered vehicles and conduct a new, more thorough technical analysis,” the post reports. 

Why it matters for defense readers: Oshkosh Defense, maker of the Army’s joint light tactical vehicle, holds the contract to replace up to 165,000 mail trucks.

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