WASHINGTON — The Army — in conjunction with the Navy — is planning to conduct three flight tests of its hypersonic glide body in 2021, an ambitious schedule to initially field the weapon in fiscal 2023, according to Lt. Gen. Neil Thurgood, who oversees the Army’s rapid development of hypersonics, directed energy and space capabilities.
In March, the Army and Navy had a successful first flight test of its Common-Hypersonic Glide Body, which was launched and flew at hypersonic speed to a designated impact point.
Hypersonic weapons are capable of flying faster than the speed of sound — Mach 5 — and can maneuver between varying altitudes and azimuths, making it harder to detect.
The Defense Department has been jointly developing the body that will serve as the base of its offensive hypersonic missile. The test marks a significant step forward in accomplishing that mission amid mounting criticism that the United States is behind China and Russia in hypersonic weapons development.
The C-HGB will be made up of the weapon’s warhead, guidance system, cabling and thermal protection shield. Each service will use the body as the base while developing individual weapon systems such as launchers capable of firing the weapons from land or sea.
“I just have to tell you that the flight test program is very aggressive,” Thurgood told Defense News during its Space and Missile Defense Debrief Aug. 5 The event followed the SMD Symposium which took place virtually August 4. “And we need to be aggressive in order to keep on pace and really be competitive with our near peer competitors, namely Russia and China,” he said.
As the Army gets closer to its fielding goal for the Block I version in fiscal year 2023, every flight test needs to meet defined objectives. “We do it for distance, we do it for speed, we do it for accuracy and we do it for lethality,” Thurgood said.
And moving forward, the services will have to “dramatically” accelerate the pace of the program, he said. That means conducting a flight test in the middle of 2021 and another two later in the year.
“Next year, our intent is to do several flight tests versus where we basically have been done or have completed the flight test, kind of, once every three years,” he added.
“Our intent is to use all of those flight tests, not just for the engineering work, but also for training work for our soldiers,” Thurgood said. “It’s not just about pushing the red button, you know, making the missile go where it wants to. It’s about the kill chain, identifying targets, how we pass mission sets, and start training that at a speed at which we would be operating.”
The Defense Department, in this case, “cannot afford for discrete events, meaning events for a singular outcome,” Thurgood said. “We have to use our resources wisely and we have to apply as many things in each event as we can without driving the risk up for success.”
In order to carry out three tests next year, the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Technical Center is planning to beef up its personnel involved, and is partnering with other organizations such as the Missile Defense Agency within the DoD to bring in the necessary expertise, Thomas Webber said in another interview with Defense News during its SMD Debrief.
The technical center’s flight test director at the Ronald Reagan Test Site in the Marshall Islands oversaw the hypersonic test in March. The center manages the site and has direct links to conducting the test and collecting the data to determine successful flight test performance.
“When you look at a test of that complexity, the challenges are just numerous and it’s very complex,” Webber said. “But when using the disciplined approaches that we use and having a dedicated team of not just Army personnel, but this includes the Navy, the Missile Defense Agency, and our industry partners, those challenges are overcome.”
Webber noted that the sharing of people and resources “has just been tremendous across the services and across the [MDA]. I would also tell you that the contractor team has been tremendous.”
The Army is in charge of the building the non-existent hypersonic industrial base and has now trained Leidos’ Dynetics — through know-how at Sandia National Laboratories — to build glide bodies so the company can now design manufacturing plans around that expertise.
“That’s going to be a tremendous improvement to the speed at which we’re able to produce the hardware that we can test,” Webber said.
And the service also has designed dedicated teams to handle each flight test. One team will conduct one flight test, another team will handle the next one, and the first team will rotate back and conduct the third test, he said. “We will keep that cycle going to maintain that [operational tempo].
“It’s an exciting challenge to have when that test piece is [accelerated] because it really is the culmination of all the hard work and you see it come to fruition. I think this will be a fun next few years,” Webber added.
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.