Austin pushes to fast-track hypersonic missiles as China, Russia make gains
The Pentagon wants to supercharge its development of hypersonic weapons programs in order to keep up with advances by Russia and China, according to four people familiar with the effort.
On Feb. 3, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin plans to meet with the CEOs of about a dozen defense companies to attack the problem, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The meeting comes after the military services delivered budget proposals for fiscal 2023 that Austin believed did not adequately speed up development and fielding of the weapons in order to keep up with Chinese and Russian advances, the people said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks and DoD’s research and engineering chief Heidi Shyu will also attend the meeting. It will be a “‘no kidding, we're getting our butts kicked by China and we need to do better’ kind of meeting,” one of the people said.
The Defense Department declined to comment on Austin’s plans.
The new effort, first reported by Defense One , follows several high-profile testing failures over the past year and amid fresh concerns of the cost of the weapons, which fly more than five times the speed of sound to make them difficult to shoot down.
The Air Force failed to complete three tests last year of the AGM-183, missing the goal of fielding the weapon this year. The latest failure occurred in December and only adds to the frustration from Congress that the Pentagon isn’t moving fast enough.
Two Pentagon leaders in recent weeks have publicly noted the high cost of developing and fielding these new weapons, though they support the continued push to get hypersonic glide body weapons in the field.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said the size and scope of the DoD’s hypersonic effort is “still very much an open question for me,” and he wants to “look at that very carefully and decide where we need to be in that trade-off” between cost and capability.
“I don't think enough work has been done on that,” he said on Jan. 19 at a Center for a New American Security event.
Shyu has repeatedly noted the high cost of developing and buying even a handful of hypersonic glide vehicles, but has remained confident that the cost will come down once the technologies are better understood.
Shyu has pressed defense contractors to lower the price tag associated with the weapons and to think about manufacturing these weapons differently by using automation or alternative materials, she said at a Defense Writers Group meeting this month.
Getting the prospective glide body missiles through development and into production will be expensive, Shyu warned, but “once you get into production, the cost is going to go down.”
The comments about cost marked a subtle shift in tone from the Trump administration, which declared it was going all-in on investing in hypersonic research and development without much talk about price tags or trade-offs.
Trump’s national security adviser pledged to put the missiles on every destroyer in the Navy’s fleet . But the multibillion-dollar plan wasn’t picked up by the Navy, or the Biden administration, in their fiscal 2022 budget request or follow-on talking points.
Part of the reason is that the missiles are very much a work in progress and haven’t been fully baked into the Pentagon’s overall modernization plans just yet.
“What missions would they perform? Against what types of targets? In what geographic setting? Answers to questions such as these would go a long way toward determining how many hypersonic weapons we need to buy, and of what type,” said Tom Mahnken, president at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act OK’d $2.5 billion for Pentagon hypersonic weapon programs, which includes a significant increase in funding for the Navy’s development effort. Additionally, the bill authorized $309.7 million for hypersonic defense programs.
The quantity needed may still be up in the air, but one U.S. weapons manufacturer believes the strategy should include investing in hypersonic defensive technology to block Chinese and Russian weapons.
“Whether that's going to be directed energy, anti-hypersonic glide vehicles, those are things that we’re working on [and] there’s a lot of money being devoted to this,” said Greg Hayes, Raytheon Technologies CEO, during a fourth-quarter earnings call this week.
Most of the work related to hypersonic defense remains classified, but Hayes revealed that the Pentagon appears to be moving toward a strategy that includes ground-based weapons, ship-based weapons and directed energy to counter enemy missiles.
The Navy is doing some of that work by developing missile-zapping lasers to put aboard amphibious ships and its planned next class of destroyers, dubbed the DDG(X).
The service showed off a drawing of the proposed new ship at a naval conference this month that included launch tubes for hypersonic weapons, a proposal that raised eyebrows.
Large, expensive hypersonic missiles placed on relatively small destroyers “are not that useful for the Navy,” said Bryan Clark, a former submarine officer at the Hudson Institute who advises the Navy. “A $40 million weapon that you carry 12 of … you'd have to have a target that you couldn't take out with 40 Tomahawks before it made it worthwhile. It doesn't seem like a good trade.”
Top Pentagon leaders are even questioning whether the U.S. must match China weapon for weapon . Instead, the military may decide to balance the number of conventional and hypersonic weapons that are needed and not enter an arms race, Kendall said.
“I think we have to be careful about not mirror-imaging the potential threats,” he said.
Ellen Lord, a former top acquisition official in the Trump Pentagon and senior fellow at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, acknowledged the price tag for glide body weapons is high, but suggested working with Australia under the auspices of the AUKUS arms development deal with the U.S. and the U.K. could help.
“Hopefully, the U.S. will sell them some share technology, but allow Australia to develop manufacturing capability using some of the U.S. technology so that they can be a significant ally to us as we look at China,” she said.
The services are taking several tracks to develop new hypersonic systems. The Army and Navy are working together on a common glide vehicle that will provide a base to carry the service’s respective missiles. The Navy will use the technology for its conventional prompt strike program, while the Army is working on a long-range hypersonic weapon.
The Air Force, meanwhile, is pursuing the AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, which suffered the three test failures last year. And the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has three hypersonic weapon programs: tactical boost glide, operational fires and the hypersonic air-breathing weapon concept.
As tests on the weapon continue, Lord said that making sure “there are reasonable prices associated with hypersonic weapons” will be key in weighing whether to move forward and how many missiles to buy.
“Medium-range hypersonic weapons are a lot less costly than long-range,” she said, “and I believe there needs to be a clear analysis of what the optimal mix of the two might be.”