WASHINGTON — Top Pentagon officials and defense industry executives huddled on hypersonic weapons development this week, marking a new level of attention to the area.
But experts say the fiscal 2023 budget will be the true test of whether the U.S. Department of Defense is serious about building the necessary momentum to deliver hypersonic capabilities on a faster timeline.
The unclassified meeting, convened Thursday by Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks and attended by more than a dozen defense CEOs, was largely centered around gathering industry feedback on the impediments to speeding up development of hypersonic capabilities, according to an official readout of the meeting.
The conversation was mostly led by Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu, but Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made an appearance toward the end, offering prepared remarks focused on the importance of the capability and the need to go fast to outpace China’s progress on hypersonic weapons, according to the readout.
Executives detailed a range of concerns, including supply chain constraints, acquisition barriers, budget instability and access to test facilities, with participants emphasizing that without suitable testing facilities, the department will struggle to truly adopt a “test often, fail fast and learn” development approach.
Meetings between defense secretaries and groups of industry executives are so uncommon that the high-level meeting alone signals the Pentagon’s deep urgency to develop hypersonic weapons. Steven Grundman, a former Pentagon industrial policy chief now with the Atlantic Council, likened it to then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin’s 1993 gathering to force defense industry leaders to consolidate their firms.
“Maybe there have been three occasions like that in a quarter century, so if the secretary of all defense asks the captains of industry to come to his office and talk about something important to him, that’s a very important indicator right there,” Grundman said.
Defense industry consultant Loren Thompson echoed Grundman’s comments, noting the meeting makes clear Austin “embraces the high priority being assigned to the weapons.”
“The bottom line here is that of all the things, Sec. Austin decided to bring the CEOs together on hypersonics,” he said. “I would say that’s a good sign for anybody with expertise in the field.”
Thompson said that the department’s investments in fiscal 2023 will provide a clearer picture of how it intends to tackle the problem.
“The president’s budget request for fiscal ‘23 will tell the tale of just how important this is,” he said. “We’ve got three different services and a variety of research agencies engaged in over a dozen different hypersonic projects. How much will that money go up?”
Mark Lewis, executive director of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technology Institute and former acting deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said the department needs to make near-term investment in its lagging hypersonic testing infrastructure.
“What you need is an [Office of the Secretary of Defense-level] commitment that says, ‘Yeah, we’re going to invest in hypersonic test facilities. We’re going to build more wind tunnels. We’re also going to make it easier to flight test,’” he said.
Along those lines, Lewis said hypersonic programs should have priority range access for flight testing, noting that in some cases, hypersonic tests get “bumped” because they are not connected to an established program of record.
The Pentagon has acknowledged its testing capability shortfall, which isn’t limited to hypersonic facilities. A recent study from its own innovation steering group uncovered a $5 billion gap in testing and laboratory infrastructure, which includes hypersonic testing facilities. On Thursday, the Pentagon’s Inspector General published an evaluation of the department’s hypersonic testing infrastructure, though its findings were marked as “controlled unclassified information.”
Thompson noted that because DoD has “lagged for so long in developing the technology,” it doesn’t have the infrastructure it needs to adequately and repeatedly test hypersonic weapons, which means it will take time and financial investment for the department to pick up its pace.
“I think that the United States is underendowed with testing facilities suitable for the development of hypersonics,” Thompson said. “It just hasn’t been a big priority until recently. And therefore, we don’t have the kind of capacity to replicate the environment in which a hypersonic atmospherically maneuvering vehicle would operate.”
But Lewis said focused government investment in testing infrastructure — as well as the offices that support technology and workforce development like the Joint Hypersonic Transition Office — could go a long way over the next few years.
“We’re at the point where it really is a technology that is basically almost at hand,” he said. “I don’t want to minimize the challenges. There are still challenges remaining . . . but there’s nothing that violates the laws of physics.”
It’s not clear if Austin’s call for industry and the department to work together to address hypersonic development challenges included a request for greater facilities investments, but many of the companies on contract to develop these capabilities are already funding major projects.
In recent months, Lockheed opened a 65,000-square-foot factory dedicated to Army, Navy and Air Force hypersonic strike weapons in Courtland, Ala. The company projects its hypersonic sales will grow from $1.5 billion per year to about $3 billion per year by about 2025.
Acting Chief Financial Officer John Mollard said on the company’s earnings call last week “there are opportunities to grow” above that projection.
“There’s operational urgencies driving our customers to push us to go faster and faster,” Mollard said. “There’s emerging activity in counter-hypersonics that may be of some note that we’ll keep an eye on that could provide upside to that forecast. But I think for modeling purposes, I’m comfortable with $3 billion.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.