WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is poised to sign two directives that would allow the U.S. Department of Defense to invest in its hypersonic weapons industrial base as adversaries demonstrate advanced capabilities.
As China and Russia tout recent progress in developing hypersonic weapons, which are unique in their ability to maneuver at speeds higher than Mach 5, the Pentagon wants to address potential supply chain disruption in key technology areas.
Michael White, principal director for hypersonics in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, said Tuesday that the presidential directives “about to be signed” that would enable the Pentagon to invest Defense Production Act Title III funds to bolster hypersonic engine and guidance and control subsystem suppliers.
Speaking during a virtual July 12 Executive Mosaic forum, White said there are “a number of different industrial base investment mechanisms that are being leveraged and being actually enhanced for hypersonic activities.”
The department’s five-year spending plan for hypersonic programs is just under $25 billion for efforts ranging from early research to prototyping to fielding.
“The funding levels are increasing significantly to allow us to get through those first three phases of our programs,” White said.
Under DPA Title III, the president can establish domestic industrial base incentives for critical technology areas to encourage things like increased production capacity and higher quality. Before the Pentagon can target DPA funding for a particular project, the president must certify to Congress that the capability is critical to national defense and that the Title III mechanism is the most efficient and cost-effective option.
The White House has expressed concern about the hypersonic industrial base as well as recognized its importance to national security. In February 2021, Biden signed an executive order directing the Pentagon to conduct a comprehensive supply chain review of four areas, including kinetic capabilities like hypersonics. And earlier this year, the administration updated its list of critical technologies to include hypersonic capabilities.
Pentagon leaders have also been sounding the alarm on the importance of quickly fielding hypersonic technology, convening a meeting with industry executives in February to better understand the impediments companies are dealing with.
Hypersonic engine capacity
As the Pentagon awaits the impending presidential directives, its DPA Title III program office wants to better gauge the industrial capacity for hypersonic engine production.
In a July 8 notice, the office asked industry for details on its ability to produce hypersonic engines at scale and said its target is to have enough capability across the industrial base to support an initial production capacity of four to six hypersonic missiles per month.
Hypersonic engines undergo a high degree of stress compared to the systems that power a more traditional strategic missile, largely because of how fast they move. As a hypersonic missile’s speed accelerates, it creates “extraordinary thermal, mechanic and acoustic stresses,” according to the notice. These conditions require a specialized industrial base for components and tooling and novel manufacturing techniques.
“To date DoD has supported proof of concept and prototyping efforts in this area, however the expansion of industrial base capacity is required to meet expected future demand,” the notice states. “Further, current engine designs are classified and the lengthy supply chain, heat treatment, coating, joining and non-destructive evaluation is disaggregated, causing significant lead-time, cost and security challenges.”
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.