WASHINGTON — In early February, executives from more than a dozen defense firms gathered virtually with top Pentagon leaders, including the department’s secretary.

At stake: the future of hypersonic weapons, one of the most hyped, debated and costly weapons initiatives in years. The government is expected to spend $15 billion on the effort between 2015 and 2024.

But while they chewed over the obstacles of supply chains, acquisition and testing facilities, hovering in the background were high-profile Chinese advancements in the cutting-edge weapons, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s boasts of his nation’s progress on hypersonic technology and questions at home about whether the United States is on the right track.

The Defense Department is at a critical moment on hypersonic technology. Now, a growing chorus of experts — including a service secretary — are urging the government to add resources for building an array of sensors, satellites and other technologies to improve America’s ability to defend against hypersonic attacks, and to better hone its strategy for how it might use them.

In other words: Is the United States approaching hypersonic technology from the right angle?

In recent months, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has repeatedly asked pointed questions about the purpose they should play in the U.S. arsenal and whether they’re worth the considerable price tag.

“The question is: Can you do the job with conventional missiles at less cost, just as effectively?” Kendall said in a Feb. 15 panel with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “Hypersonics are a way to penetrate defenses, but they’re not the only way.”

Hypersonic weapons can travel multiple times faster than the speed of sound — greater than Mach 5 — and can maneuver midflight. This makes them capable of penetrating defenses and much harder to track and shoot down than conventional ballistic missiles, which follow a predictable parabolic track. Both China and Russia have invested heavily into hypersonic research; look no further than Russia’s Avangard, a long-range boost glide vehicle.

In the U.S., the Army, Navy, Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are working on hypersonic programs, some in cooperation with one another. These include the All Up Round, a joint Army and Navy program; the Air Force’s AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW; and DARPA’s Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, which is under development in partnership with the Air Force.

Top defense firms see growth opportunities in the hypersonic market, and are jockeying for position.

The hypersonic market was one of the drivers of Lockheed Martin’s attempted $4.4 billion acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne, a maker of vital parts for scramjet engines that go into hypersonic missiles. Lockheed hoped acquiring Aerojet and its propulsion capabilities would allow it to integrate the tech into its broader engineering department and operate faster and more cheaply.

The Federal Trade Commission responded with a lawsuit in January, expressing concern the deal would lead to higher prices for hypersonic cruise missiles. The FTC’s challenge ultimately scuttled the deal in February, but Lockheed and the commission’s disagreement illustrates the importance of the market to both industry and government regulators.

At a February conference, Lockheed CEO Jim Taiclet noted the company’s work on six hypersonic programs, including the ARRW, and called hypersonics a “national priority.”

Lockheed Chief Financial Officer Jay Malave said there’s “just a lot of growth there.”

“It’s there, it’s real, and we’re a big player in that,” he added.

Northrop Grumman last year began construction on a 60,000-foot facility in Maryland to better design and produce hypersonic weapons.

But particularly in recent months, Kendall has been a persistent voice of caution about how the U.S. should think about these weapons, and how the nation should respond to China’s headline-grabbing advancements.

Matching China?

One factor giving Kendall pause: What China might do with hypersonic technology isn’t necessarily what the United States would want to do. As a result, he said, the U.S. doesn’t need to match China’s every move in the hypersonic realm — particularly given the weapons’ high price tag.

“It isn’t obvious that just because China is doing hypersonics, so we should do, immediately, similar hypersonics,” Kendall said Feb. 15.

One problem, Kendall explained, is current hypersonic technology tends to be best suited for striking fixed targets. “Our job, fundamentally, is to deter and defeat aggression,” he said. “Somebody commits aggression when they move somewhere else, whether it’s by ships across the straits of Taiwan or vehicles rolling into Ukraine. So we want weapons that can deal with moving targets.”

Kendall recommends the U.S. examine potential targets and find the most cost-effective way to hit them; and in some cases, that might not involve a hypersonic weapon.

The military also needs to consider cost, he added. The Government Accountability Office said in a report last year the government is likely to spend nearly $15 billion between 2015 and 2024 to develop hypersonic weapons across 70 different efforts.

Kendall is asking the right questions, said John Venable, a senior defense fellow at the Heritage Foundation. The weapons could cost anywhere from $50 million to $100 million apiece, he explained — though the hope is to get them down to $10 million a shot — and the military needs to consider what targets would justify using such an expensive munition.

How China answers that question is likely to differ from the U.S., Venable said.

“If I was the Chinese, if I could sink the flattops while they’re in harbor in Norfolk, [Virginia], or off the coast of California [as a surprise attack], then that would be a great munition to use,” Venable said. “Anything else, you’ve got to sit back and wonder what’s going to be the strategic impact of one of these rounds.”

The U.S. wouldn’t carry out that kind of a surprise attack, Venable said. And it wouldn’t necessarily need hypersonic missiles to destroy one of China’s capital ships, he added — stealth bombers, for example, could do that job.

In a Feb. 15 email, the Air Force said it is using the results of war games, exercises and analyses, with the help of the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center and the Air Force Futures office, to answer Kendall’s questions. The Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, combatant commands and other organizations have provided their own observations and studies.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall speaks to attendees at the U.S. Space Force congressional birthday event in the Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C., Dec 2, 2021. (Andy Morataya/Air Force)

Since Kendall started raising these concerns at the Air Force Association’s convention in September, “Air Force Futures has been coordinating with these stakeholders to understand and communicate the warfighting value proposition of this technology,” the service said. “At this stage, there is a very close alignment between the Department [of the Air Force] and broader DoD strategies pertaining to hypersonics.”

Kendall said hypersonic weapons such as boost glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles can have a role in the military’s inventory. And he said they could come from multiple sources, whether air-delivered or via surface launches from either the Army or Navy.

Todd Harrison, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Aerospace Security Project, said Kendall’s remarks are trying to steer the conversation back to a “more rational place” and away from a “knee-jerk” impulse to try to match China.

Hypersonic weapons could be more useful to the U.S. in the early stages of a conflict, before an enemy’s air defenses are neutralized, to strike time-sensitive targets such as command-and-control nodes or the air defenses themselves, Harrison said.

The weapons could also be used as a penetrator to deliver munitions through concrete infrastructure or underground, hardened, stationary targets such as an Iranian nuclear facility, he added.

A defensive stance

But the U.S. should do more to build its defenses, Harrison said.

“You don’t fight hypersonic weapons with hypersonic weapons; you fight it with missile defense systems that are actually capable of tracking and targeting hypersonic weapons,” he explained.

In a Feb. 7 report, the CSIS think tank called for the U.S. to do more to strengthen its defensive abilities to detect, track and intercept hypersonic weapons. The report, “Complex Air Defense: Countering the Hypersonic Missile Threat,” argued fielding a defense will involve a multilayered approach, including new sensing and interceptor capabilities.

Most importantly, CSIS said, the nation will need a layer of space sensors that can spot, classify and track missiles of any kind and along any path.

“We can hit these things … if we have the tracking data,” Harrison said. “But if we can’t see the missile, or if we lose it for part of its flight, we’re not going to be able to intercept it.”

On this front, the Space Force, Space Development Agency and Missile Defense Agency are working together to build a new missile warning and tracking architecture. This could include a mix of wide-field-of-view and medium-field-of-view satellites in low Earth orbit — under development by MDA — and the Space Force’s work to modernize its missile warning and tracking satellites.

The nation also needs a glide-phase interceptor, CSIS said. So far, the government has only invested modestly in developing hypersonic defenses, compared to the funding for a hypersonic strike capability. As it stands, the U.S. wouldn’t have a glide-phase interceptor ready until the 2030s, CSIS said, but the process could be accelerated.

Hypersonics are a way to penetrate defenses, but they’re not the only way.

—  Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall

The think tank also said hypersonic weapons’ revolutionary capabilities to travel fast and turn in flight could be potential weaknesses. There are many ways the U.S. could throw a wrench in their gears, including using high-powered microwave systems, launching hit-to-kill interceptors, or throwing up a wall of debris or other particulate matter to disrupt or destroy hypersonic attacks.

Still, Harrison believes it’s worthwhile for the military to continue developing these weapons. Research on propulsion and guidance systems will be applicable in other areas, he said, plus having a small inventory of these weapons would be useful.

But thinking carefully about how the military intends to use them, and under what circumstances, will help as the technology moves from a “science fair project” to an operational weapon, Harrison said.

“It’ll make them more relevant if they’re actually designed for the way we envision using them,” he added. “And not design the weapons to be the holy grail, which they’re not going to be.”

Testing failures

The Air Force’s ARRW program — the boost glide air-to-ground hypersonic missile under development — hit snags last year, with tests in April, July and December all failing due to problems during the launch process.

According to the latest report from the Pentagon’s weapons tester, the first test failed when a problem with the missile’s fin actuator was detected before it was released from the B-52 bomber carrying it. The second test failed when a problem happened after the missile was released from the B-52, preventing the booster motor from igniting, which led to a loss of the missile.

The service is now trying to sort out what happened in the most recent incident in December. That review is expected to be completed this summer.

“So far, we haven’t had one that fired effectively … that’s left the rail and actually where the engine is fired,” Venable said. “We don’t know how far or how well this program is going because it’s literally still hanging on the rail. So we need to do more tests, and we need to do those tests much more rapidly than what we’re doing.”

Kendall said such troubles are expected for a program under development, and he wants the Air Force to learn from them.

Asked if it’s still possible to begin producing the ARRW this fiscal year, as the Air Force had hoped, the service said a decision on production “remains event driven and will occur after operational utility is demonstrated and [the] production readiness review is completed.”

The Air Force in 2020 canceled its other major hypersonic program, the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon, due to budget pressures. DARPA’s Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept conducted a successful free-flight test in September 2021.

At the meeting with top Pentagon officials in February, industry executives listed concerns about advancing hypersonic technology, including supply chain constraints, acquisition barriers, budget instability and inaccessible test facilities. The executives said that without suitable testing facilities, the department will struggle to adopt a “test often, fail fast and learn” approach.

Kendall said testing failures haven’t convinced him to step away from hypersonic work.

“I rethink all of our programs all the time,” he said when asked whether he’s considering altering the Air Force’s approach. But hypersonic projects would likely continue “in one form or another,” he added

“I don’t think there’s any question we’re going to want to keep moving the technology forward,” Kendall said. “But the specific applications are going to be based on cost-effectiveness. … Hypersonics are not going to be cheap anytime soon, so I think we’re more likely to have relatively small inventories of hypersonics than large ones.”

A leading DoD hypersonics official, however, said at CSIS’ Feb. 7 discussion that numbers will matter — and the U.S. must increase production rates, particularly on thermal protection systems for glide vehicles and on additive manufacturing for cruise missile engines, which take the longest to produce.

“Everything we’re doing in terms of interceptors, the strike weapons, isn’t going to make a difference unless we have sufficient quantities,” said Gillian Bussey, director of the Joint Hypersonics Transition Office in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. “Having a dozen hypersonic missiles … that isn’t going to scare anyone.”

“If we can reduce the production time and increase the capacity and double, triple, quadruple those production numbers, I think that’s how we really make a difference,” Bussey added. “Those investments, I think, need to start now in order for them to be there when we’re ready with a program of record or to start cranking out real numbers.”

Courtney Albon and Jen Judson contributed to this report.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.