WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force on Thursday awarded a $985 million contract to Raytheon Technologies to develop and demonstrate scramjet-powered hypersonic cruise missiles.

The contract starts to move the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile, or HACM, program out of the prototyping phase and into becoming an operational weapon that could be used in combat. It also cuts the number of companies vying to make the weapon from three to one.

Under the deal, the HACM program will take Raytheon’s prototype design and prepare it to be integrated into a fighter aircraft that could then be used in combat, the Air Force said in a release Thursday. Raytheon will also deliver two HACMs, the release said.

The Air Force said HACM will be an air-launched standoff weapon that can hit high-value targets in contested environments and could be fired from beyond the reach of enemy air defenses. The service hopes to have a HACM weapon that could be used in combat by fiscal 2027.

Hypersonic weapons such as the HACM can fly multiple times the speed of sound and can maneuver mid-flight, making them hard for enemies to track and shoot down.

In a future war against an adversary with advanced air defenses, such as China, the weapon could be used to strike valuable targets well within those defenses and otherwise out of reach. A fighter armed with such a weapon could fly to the edge of where the adversary’s defenses could reach and then fire the weapon. Once the HACM’s scramjet pushes the aircraft to about Mach 5, it could then outrun and evade air defenses on its way to the target, without putting the fighter pilot at risk.

“HACM is a powerful example of developing and integrating combat capabilities alongside our partners from the beginning,” Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown said in the release. “HACM will provide our commanders with tactical flexibility to employ fighters to hold high-value, time-sensitive targets at risk, while maintaining bombers for other strategic targets.”

The contract marks the end of more than a year of competition between major defense contractors to prove their concept will work.

The Air Force and Australia teamed up in 2020 to develop air-breathing hypersonic cruise missile prototypes under a bilateral project arrangement called the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment, or SCIFiRE.

In June 2021, the Air Force awarded 15-month SCIFiRE contracts to Raytheon, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin to finish their preliminary designs for a hypersonic cruise missile.

The Air Force said in Thursday’s release the U.S. and Australia will keep collaborating on HACM’s design and development under the SCIFiRE agreement.

Part of this continued collaboration will include using Australia’s test infrastructure for HACM’s first all-up-round flight tests.

A lack of sufficient infrastructure to test hypersonics has been a major hindrance for developing these weapons in the United States, industry officials told Pentagon leaders earlier this year. Lawmakers and DoD officials have sought to expand American testing capabilities to fix this.

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.

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