By signing two different contracts worth $1.4 billion in the past four months with Lockheed Martin, the Air Force is claiming that it is accelerating the development of hypersonic weapons in order to keep up with similar development by the Chinese and the Russians.
The first contract, announced in April, awards $928 million to develop something called the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW). And last week, the Air Force disclosed another deal, worth up to $480 million, to begin designing the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW).
“We are going to go fast and leverage the best technology available to get hypersonic capability to the war fighter as soon as possible,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in a statement last week.
Hypersonic vehicles travel at least five times faster than the speed of sound (Mach 5; Mach 1 at sea level is 762 mph, or 1,226 km/h). And they’re designed to be maneuverable, which differentiates them from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and other fast-flying conventional weapons systems that follow predictable paths. “We don’t currently have effective defenses against hypersonic weapons because of the way they fly; i.e., they’re maneuverable and fly at an altitude our current defense systems are not designed to operate at,” Richard Speier, adjunct staff at the nonprofit RAND Corp., told CNBC in March. “Our whole defensive system is based on the assumption that you’re gonna intercept a ballistic object.”
I am a bit skeptical here. The military has been playing around with hypersonic development now for the last fifteen years, spending a lot of money flying a handful of test flights of three different design concept prototypes. Nothing is even close to an actual operational vehicle. These new contracts might produce something, but I fear that they are also pork-laden, and will be too expensive and take far too long, producing nothing more than test prototypes once again.