WASHINGTON – As the Pentagon telegraphs a new sense of urgency to fielding hypersonic weapons, top Lockheed Martin officials are touting recent breakthroughs in leveraging extreme speed to counter emerging threats.
"Lockheed Martin has a legacy of making fast aircraft," Lockheed CEO Marillyn Hewson said March 15 during the company's annual media day. "We are now producing a controllable, low-drag, aerodynamic configuration capable of stable operations from takeoff to subsonic, transonic, supersonic and hypersonic, to Mach 6."
Hypersonic flight is defined as anything about Mach 5, meaning five times the speed of sound or 3,600 miles per hour. To put it into perspective, a jet flying at hypersonic speeds could cross the continental United States in about half an hour.
Although it is extremely difficult to reach and maintain such speeds due to extreme temperatures and thermal loadings, the US has had the ability to build boost glide and boost cruise weapons for six decades. NASA's X-15 effort in the 1960s was able to achieve speeds of Mach 5, and in 2013 the Air Force's X-51 Waverider air vehicle, launched from a B-52 bomber, reached Mach 5.1 at 60,000 feet.
But developing a hypersonic weapon is expensive and technologically challenging, and in recent decades the Pentagon has chosen to invest in more traditional ways to take out the threat. However, as adversaries like Russia and China develop surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft weapons designed to foil US forces' ability to penetrate, Pentagon leaders are pushing hypersonics as a means to counter this "anti-access area denial," or A2/AD, environment.
"Because of the speed of the hypersonic weapons, which we think would be very valuable in terms of penetration etcetera, they are going to have some autonomy in them," said Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work March 9. "Our adversaries are pursuing them really fast, so the question to us is how best to do it. ... So we are pursuing research and development for hypersonic weapons."
The speed of hypersonic weapons allows development of better targeting solutions, enabling commanders more opportunity to assess targets correctly and accurately and then act, Richard Hallion and retired Maj. Gen Curtis Bedke wrote in a January report by the Mitchell Institute. Hypersonics also solves the distance problem of an A2/AD environment, as a Mach 5 weapon could be launched outside the "threat rings" of modern SAMs and fighter aircraft and still reach the target in time.
To meet this need, Lockheed is working on a number of innovative technologies to enable long-duration, maneuverable, hypersonic flight, company CEO Marillyn Hewson told reporters March 15. These breakthroughs include new thermal protection systems, innovative aerodynamic shapes, navigation guidance and control improvements, and long-range communication capabilities, she said.
Lockheed has previously supported work on hypersonics. In 2011, a joint Lockheed-Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency effort tested HTV-2, a hypersonic vehicle designed to travel at Mach 20. But the friction and heat burned through the test vehicle's outer shelf, and it crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
Based on lessons learned from HTV-2, Lockheed is currently supporting two new customer efforts in hypersonics: the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, or HAWC, and the Tactical Boost Glide vehicle, Hewson said.
"The technology could also enable hypersonic passenger flights, and, even easier, access to space," Hewson said. "I am confident that Lockheed Martin has the technical expertise to make it happen."
Lockheed's secretive Skunkworks arms is working with Aerojet Rocketdyne to mature technologies for HAWC, a joint DARPA-US Air Force effort, according to Skunkworks executive vice president Rob Weiss. Lockheed's HAWC uses a booster to get up to altitude and then fires a "scramjet" engine that funnels in oxygen from the outside air to reach upwards of Mach 5, Weiss said March 15.
Lockheed will submit a proposal later this month, and expects a contract award in the middle of the year, Weiss said. A demonstrator aircraft will fly in the 2018 timeframe, he said.
Lockheed, along with Raytheon, also recently won a contract for the initial phase of the Tactical Boost Glide, another joint DARPA-Air Force program. The TBG is boosted up to high altitudes and speeds over Mach 5, and then glides to its target, Weiss explained.
"We actually feel that we've made substantial progress in all the technologies associated with hypersonics," Weiss said. "There's a number of challenges in the technologies, the propulsion, the materials that have to deal with the high temperatures, and we're at a point now where those technologies are mature, and therefore we feel very confident that we can field and successfully fly a hypersonic vehicle."
Hewson also showed an image of a third hypersonic concept, similar to the HAWC but with a recoverable "turbine-based combined cycle" engine, Weiss explained. The HAWC's booster is designed for a single use, he stressed. There is not yet a DARPA project for this capability, and Lockheed still needs to mature the propulsion technology, he said.
Such an aircraft could be produced for less than $1 billion, Hewson said.
"Most importantly, we're proving a hypersonic aircraft can be produced at an affordable price," Hewson said. "We estimate it will cost less than $1 billion to develop, build and fly a demonstrator aircraft the size of an F-22."
Despite the so-called "bow wave" of acquisition and tight budgets, Lockheed officials expressed confidence the Pentagon will want to invest in hypersonics. As industry evolves the technology, the capability becomes more affordable, said Orlando Carvalho, executive vice president for Lockheed's aeronautics business, in a March 15 interview.
"I think as we evolve that technology it will meet the affordability requirement," Carvalho said. "I think as that evolves the technology will mature, the materials, the components will mature, and with that will come affordability."
Lockheed sees a hypersonic weapon capability in the 2020s, and a hypersonic air vehicle – manned or unmanned – in the 2030s, he said.
The Pentagon has clearly messaged its interest in investing in hypersonics, Hewson emphasized.
"I think it's absolutely the right time to be investing in it. . . . It is a capability that we need and as I mentioned earlier, you need that speed, you need that ability to address the threats all around the world," Hewson said. "When you consider some of the things that have been discussed about the future threats by the DOD, hypersonics is an area that they are going to continue to invest in as well."