WASHINGTON — As the Pentagon races to develop hypersonic weapons, it is turning to universities for help on speeding up the transfer of technology from the laboratory to the field.
The Defense Department on Oct. 26 tapped Texas A&M University to create and manage a University Consortium for Applied Hypersonics. Over a five-year period, the department will pay out $20 million per year to the university’s Engineering Experiment Station, it said in a statement.
Greater interplay among government, academia and industry is needed to better integrate the various state-of-the art technologies necessary to create hypersonic weapons, which require novel propulsion systems and advanced materials that can withstand the extreme conditions intrinsic to flying five times the speed of sound, said Gillian Bussey, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Hypersonics Transition Office.
“The department is funding a good amount of basic research in hypersonics,” she said. “But we’re finding that tests leading some of the more applied areas,” which supports the transfer of technologies into manufactured products, “are not quite as healthy and not bringing fresh blood into our work force and into our industry.”
The new consortium will work directly with the Defense Department and other government agencies on hypersonic research, with a focus on partnering with industry to transition new technologies into programs of record.
Bussey pointed to hypersonic development activities in China, where academic research papers show that college students are being exposed to every element of hypersonic vehicle development, from design to flying experimental prototypes in windtunnel tests.
The U.S. consortium will start working on challenge projects, where a military agency like the Office of Naval Research designates a problem for the university to solve. Those problems could potentially involve classified or controlled technologies.
“The gold standard [for the U.S. university consortium] would be to have the team develop a vehicle and fly it. That really depends on our budget and how things go,” Bussey said.
The consortium is set to begin operations this fall and will be led by Rodney Bowersox, an aeronautical engineering professor at Texas A&M and director of the university’s hypersonics laboratory.
A board of experts — with members from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Minnesota, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Arizona, the University of Tennessee Space Institute, Morgan State University, the California Institute of Technology, Purdue, the University of California-Los Angeles, and the Georgia Institute of Technology — will also provide guidance to the new organization.
Developing and fielding hypersonic weapons has been a major priority for the Defense Department officials, who have raised concerns about Chinese and Russian advances in that realm. Last week, national security adviser Robert O’Brien announced that the Navy’s Virginia-class submarines, Zumwalt-class destroyers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers would all eventually be able to launch hypersonic missiles.
“We do believe we are in a bit of a race right now,” said Mark Lewis, the department’s director of research and engineering for modernization. “We had previously a number of a prototype efforts. Now we’re looking to those prototype efforts, especially the ones that are most successful, transitioning directly to programs of record.”
In fiscal year 2021, the department requested $3.2 billion for research, development, testing and evaluation funds related to hypersonic weapons.