The Pentagon is preparing to push the CEOs of America’s largest defense companies to accelerate hypersonic weapons development by hosting a high-level meeting next week with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The purpose is to “light a fire underneath the entire hypersonic industry” and “encourage industry to pick up the pace,” according to two executives at two defense companies who’ve been invited to attend the meeting which is scheduled for Thursday.
The United States has “a lot of catching up to do very quickly,” according to US Space Force Gen. David Thompson, after recent hypersonic weapons tests by China and Russia surprised US national security officials and indicated the US is falling behind their main geopolitical rivals.
“We’re not as advanced as the Chinese or the Russians in terms of hypersonic programs,” Thompson said in November while speaking at the Halifax International Security Forum.
The Pentagon says Austin will deliver “brief framing remarks” at the beginning of next week’s meeting, but it will be chaired by Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks as “part of her regular, drumbeat engagements with industry” to discuss “ways to accelerate the development of cutting-edge capabilities and new operational concepts.”
Defense One was first to report news of the meeting.
Top executives from Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Leidos, Aerojet Rocketdyne, BAE Systems, L3Harris, and about a half dozen other defense companies have been invited to attend.
Traveling at Mach 5 or faster, hypersonic weapons are difficult to detect, posing a challenge to missile defense systems. Hypersonic missiles can travel at a far lower trajectory than high-arcing ballistic missiles, which can be easily detectable. They can also maneuver and evade missile defense systems.
China and Russia’s advances and recent failed tests have led the Pentagon to inject more urgency into the US program and increase the resources they are devoting to hypersonic weapons development. The FY22 budget committed $3.8 billion to hypersonic research, an increase from the previous year’s $3.2 billion.
While Russia and China are developing hypersonic weapons capable of carrying nuclear warheads, the US has focused its development on conventional warheads, which require a greater degree of accuracy and can be more technologically challenging to develop. While defense companies are typically in charge of the manufacturing of weapons and weapons systems, the US military is predominately responsible for testing and launch.
The meeting will be moderated by Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu, who told reporters in January that all six branches of the US military are “pushing the contractors very, very aggressively” on hypersonic weapons development. Shyu also noted that “no aggressive schedule, especially if you’re pushing hard on them, will go through perfectly without some problems.”
Indeed, the US hypersonic industry has suffered problems and setbacks in recent months. In October, the Pentagon says a test of a hypersonic glide body failed due to a problem with the rocket propelling it to hypersonic speeds, and in April, a hypersonic missile failed to separate from a B-52H Stratofortress bomber during a test at Edwards Air Force Base.
Retired Air Force Gen. John Hyten, while serving as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said America’s aversion to failure slowed down the testing process. While the US had conducted approximately nine hypersonic tests in the last five years, the Chinese had conducted “hundreds.”
“We’ve decided that failure is bad,” Hyten said. “Nope, failure is part of the learning process. And if you want to get back to speed, you better figure out how to put speed back into [sic] and that means taking risk and that means learning from failures and that means failing fast and moving fast.”
Still, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall cautioned just last week about “mirror imaging” China’s hypersonic development program, since the US and China have different targets in mind.
“I think we have to look very carefully at the target set that we’re interested in and at the most cost-effective way to deal with it, and I think that’s still very much an open question,” Kendall told the Center for New American Security in a virtual discussion.