NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The U.S. Air Force’s top civilian is unsatisfied with existing hypersonic weapons programs and isn’t sure whether the weapons under development will meet the service’s needs, he said on Monday.
Although the Air Force’s work on hypersonic weapons is progressing, it’s not moving fast enough, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber conference.
On top of that, the service has not laid out in enough detail which missions will call for the use of hypersonic weapons, how to fit them into operations and whether the technologies in development will allow the service to accomplish its goals, he said.
“It’s pretty clear to me what the Chinese want to do with the hypersonics they’re developing. It’s even pretty clear to me what the Russians might want to do with hypersonics,” Kendall said.
“The target set that we would want to address, and why hypersonics are the most cost effective weapons for the U.S., I think it’s still to me somewhat of a question mark,” he added. “I haven’t seen all the analysis that’s been done to justify the current program.”
Air Combat Command head Gen. Mark Kelly agreed more work needs to be done to ensure the hypersonic weapons being developed can be incorporated into normal operations.
“I think he’s right. We do need to make sure we have an unambiguous, well-understood [concept of operations] we go forward to,” he said Wednesday. “We need to make sure that, before we pull the trigger and commit a ton of resources to it, everyone’s on the same piece of music.”
While Kendall did not criticize a specific program, the service’s AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon has encountered several flight test failures over the past year and — as the first hypersonic missile set to become operational — is the Air Force’s most visible hypersonic weapons program.
Most recently, during a July 28 test over Point Mugu Sea Range near southern California, the missile’s engine failed to ignite after the weapon was launched from a B-52 bomber.
The Air Force hasn’t yet isolated the root cause of that failed test, said Brig. Gen. Health Collins, the Air Force’s program executive for weapons, during a webinar hosted by Defense News on Monday.
However, as long as the program is able to fix the issue and resume flight testing by the end of 2021, the program will stay on track to put ARRW into production in fiscal 2022, he said.
“I will caveat, though, that depends on the root cause being found and in us getting back into flight this year,” Collins said, adding that other failures could further impact the schedule.
Although Kendall is scrutinizing the Air Force’s hypersonic programs, he has not slowed down either ARRW or the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile, said Lt. Gen. Duke Richardson, the service’s top uniformed acquisition official.
“Secretary Kendall has not spared any program,” he said Tuesday. “He’s doing exactly what you would expect the secretary of the Air Force to do — he’s coming in with some questions. I think he’s seeing the fiscal environment and he wants to make sure that we’re focused on the war fighter.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.