SecDef Austin Summons Hypersonics CEOs
Pentagon meeting set for next week in race to outpace China and Russia.
Updated 9:40 p.m. ET to add a Pentagon statement. An earlier version of the story incorrectly said the meeting would be entirely face-to-face.
Amid several high-profile test failures that have slowed hypersonic weapon development, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has summoned the CEOs of nearly a dozen of America’s largest defense companies for a high-profile meeting next week, Defense One has learned.
The purpose of the Feb. 3 meeting is to stress the urgency in fielding the fast-flying weapons as the U.S. plays catch-up to recent Chinese and Russian advances, according to five people with knowledge of the meeting. All spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Pentagon has not publicly announced it.
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks will chair the virtual meeting; Heidi Shyu, a defense undersecretary who oversees all hypersonic weapons development, is also expected to attend.
“This meeting is part of [Hicks’] regular, drumbeat engagements with industry in key areas of innovation and modernization to strengthen relationships and discuss ways to accelerate the development of cutting-edge capabilities and new operational concepts,” Eric Pahon, a Defense Department spokesman, said in an emailed statement. “The topics will range from systems engineering concepts to the manufacturing workforce.”
Three people familiar with the meeting described it as a chance for Austin to stress the need for companies to step up their work and move faster. Pahon said Austin is scheduled to deliver “brief framing remarks.”
Defense secretaries rarely meet with groups of CEOs, especially about niche topics.
Fielding hypersonic weapons—difficult-to-intercept missiles that can maneuver at ICBM-like speeds—has been a top priority for Pentagon officials in recent years. China and Russia “have a number of hypersonic weapons programs and have likely fielded operational hypersonic glide vehicles—potentially armed with nuclear warheads,” Congressional Research Service analyst Kelley Sayler wrote in an October report.
“Most U.S. hypersonic weapons, in contrast to those in Russia and China, are not being designed for use with a nuclear warhead,” Sayler wrote. “As a result, U.S. hypersonic weapons will likely require greater accuracy and will be more technically challenging to develop than nuclear-armed Chinese and Russian systems.”
North Korea earlier this month tested what it claimed were hypersonic missiles.
The Pentagon wants to spend $3.8 billion on hypersonic weapons in 2022; however, Congress has still not passed a federal budget, nearly four months into the new fiscal year.
The Trump and Biden administrations both fast-tracked hypersonic weapon development.
“I think that hypersonics is maybe the leading example of how traditional DOD procurement is speeding up,” Lockheed Martin CEO Jim Taiclet said Wednesday during a Council on Foreign Relations event.
But with that speed has come a number of test failures.
The Pentagon has at least a half dozen publicly disclosed hypersonic weapon programs. Some are expected to begin serial production as soon as this year. Defense companies have spent millions of dollars on new factories and technologies to build these types of weapons.
Some obstacles have been legal, not technical. Lockheed Martin’s two-year-old plan to acquire rocket maker Aerojet Rocketdyne has been targeted by the Federal Trade Commission, which said on Tuesday that the proposed deal would give Lockheed a corner on the hypersonic market.
DOD Playing Catch-Up
Still, industry is not the main reason the Defense Department’s hypersonic programs aren’t progressing as quickly as hoped, experts say.
The Pentagon “made some, well, frankly, some poor decisions. We're playing catch-up to try to make up for those decisions,” said Mark Lewis, who served in 2020 as the acting undersecretary of defense for research and engineering and is now the executive director of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute.
Lewis cited the development of an air-launched hypersonic cruise missile with a scramjet engine. In 2013, the Air Force had turned the 60-year-old idea into a working demonstration, launching the Boeing X-51A Waverider from a B-52 bomber for 240 seconds of flight, demonstrating the only limitation in operating a scramjet engine was the amount of fuel you had.
“The logical thing would have been to continue to expand the fight envelope, do more flights, expand the Mach number, do studies of…stability, control, maneuvering all that stuff,” Lewis said.
Instead the Air Force Research Lab handed the project to DARPA, which basically started over from scratch, Lewis said.
“DARPA doesn't pick up other people's programs. DARPA is on the cutting edge. So the result is that the next scramjet flights that we had in the United States were part of the DARPA HAWC [hypersonic air-breathing weapon concept] program they just had a couple months ago. So that was an 11-year gap.”
Now industry and the Defense Department are running into avoidable problems with some of its tests, problems that don’t come from new science but are born of poor attention to detail and other errors.
“When boosters fail, when things fall off of rockets, that's not a good reason to fail,” Lewis said. “We've had a fair amount of that.”
Those simple errors become big delays because there is too little infrastructure—ranges, wind tunnels—to test high-speed missiles. Miss your appointed timeslot and it can be weeks or months before another opens up.“You're competing with time on the range against other programs under development— you know, things like F-35 [joint strike fighter] and other programs of record. So there has been this tendency that hypersonic tests are not being prioritized,” he said.
One industry source said the U.S. hasn’t tested weapons at this pace in decades, and there’s been some atrophy in government testing apparatus.
By contrast, China in recent years has developed new wind tunnels. Chinese and Russian weapons developers are also less constrained by safety rules and environmental regulations.
Still, new digital technologies like digital twinning and advanced modeling and simulation are allowing the Defense Department to accelerate the creation of new prototypes for things like fighter jets. They are making a big difference in the development of hypersonics as well. But advanced modeling for design only works when you already have lots of data from flight tests and other real-world experience. So while advanced modeling can cut down on the time it takes to create new prototypes or concepts, it doesn’t remove the need for testing, especially in areas where there isn’t much data to inform models.
“How do we solve this? We need to invest in our infrastructure needs to do more investment in ground test. We need to be investing in flight tests. One thing that we desperately need…flight test capabilities that let us test things, fly them, and then bring them back. Look what we did in the 1960s,” Lewis said.
Kevin Baron contributed to this report.