HUNTSVILLE, Ala. —The U.S. military is a few years from launching offensive hypersonic weapons that are currently under development. But building those initial missiles is one thing — manufacturing the weapons in multitude is another issue entirely.
“I would say we really need to understand, again, how can we produce precision hardware at scale,” Michael Griffin, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, told a group of reporters Aug. 7 at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama.
“If we talk about ballistic missile defense or hypersonic offense and we talk about proliferating architectures, we need any dozens, many hundreds, maybe thousands of assets,” he added. “This takes us back to the Cold War where at one point we had 30,000 nuclear warheads and missiles to launch them. We haven’t produced at that kind of scale since the wall came down.”
As hypersonic missiles become a reality, industry is going to have to relearn how to effectively, efficiently and economically produce them, Griffin said.
While industry has developed warheads, glide bodies and other components, there is no industrial base equipped to manufacture hypersonic weapons.
Things are moving in the right direction when it comes to bringing industry up to speed and preparing for larger-scale manufacturing of missiles, Griffin said. But building these systems is challenging because, for example, hypersonics require a greater degree of thermal protection than what has been required of other weapons in the past, he noted.
Building hypersonics is no longer a technical issue or a matter of understanding physics, but rather an issue of understanding the industrial engineering required to produce a larger number.
“I’m not sure how much help the government can be there,” he said. “Mass production is not what we do. … That is going to be an industry problem.”
The Army is just weeks away from awarding a contract to a company that will work with the federally funded laboratory that developed a hypersonic glide body to develop manufacturing plans and strategies. Other companies will have a turn as well. The effort is spearheaded by the service’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office.
Griffin stressed that the weapons manufacturing process needs to be affordable. “Our adversaries have clearly found ways to make them affordable. China has these things now by the thousands. What do we do to learn, once again, how to produce sophisticated things at scale and affordably?” he said.
China is able to field new systems every few years, Griffin noted, while the U.S. takes a decade or more to get through a cumbersome acquisition process.
“It don’t believe that the issues facing the United States aerospace and defense establishment are issues of specific technologies,” he said. “I believe that over the last 30 years … we’ve become lost in our processes.”
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.