WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army is moving quickly to develop an offensive hypersonic missile — and it doesn’t plan to revert back to its slower ways for future weapons development efforts, according to one senior official.
Lt. Gen. L. Neil Thurgood, who oversees Army rapid acquisition efforts, likened the four-year timeline to design, test and field a hypersonic weapon to the space race of the 1950s, saying the U.S. hasn’t been so united around a rapid technology development program since then — or so willing to ditch common practices for revolutionary ones.
“That is wicked fast,” he said, referring to the fiscal 2023 fielding deadline he was given in February 2019.
Thurgood, the director for hypersonics, directed energy, space and rapid acquisition, said everything the program is doing — from its maturation of operational tactics even as it flies the missile for the first time, to developing an industrial base in stride, to its partnership with the U.S. Navy on the joint hypersonic program —is designed specifically to move rapidly.
Just 26 months after starting a clean-sheet design effort, for example, the Army fielded its ground support equipment to soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord last week, Defense News reported.
Next week, the soldiers there from the I Corps’ 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Field Artillery Brigade will start new-equipment training using virtual trainers that can get them spun up on the gear faster than traditional classroom methods. Even as they’re learning how to operate the equipment they just received, they’ll also participate in a series of upcoming flight tests of the hypersonic missile’s glide body to start validating their tactics, techniques and procedures.
“We don’t have time to do a bunch of flight tests and then give it to the unit; the unit has to be part of the flight test program, so we train them how to shoot this and use this weapon system as we build the weapon system,” Thurgood said during an Oct. 11 briefing at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference.
He told Defense News during a question-and-answer session the flight tests’ objectives would equally cover material lessons learned on the glide body and operational lessons learned on the soldiers’ tactics.
“When you’re prototyping, not only do you have a new piece of equipment, but you have to develop a new doctrine, a new TTP to go with it. So we have a very defined set of those [objectives] — so our young soldiers up at JBLM with hypersonics, for example, they’ll come out and start worrying about how do we emplace this, how far apart do we have to be, all those kind of things that are just operational TTPs that traditionally would be very sequential. We don’t have time to do that, nor do we want to; that’s the old behavior — the new behavior is do it together, do it in real time, and if it doesn’t work, change the design in real time.”
In a further departure from the traditional, linear process of moving from development to test to fielding, Thurgood said program officials are already involved in the hypersonic weapon prototyping effort. The Program Executive Office for Missiles and Space that will eventually receive the hypersonic weapon has a transition team embedded in the Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office to get a jump start on their work.
If and when this rapid development effort is deemed a success and the Army chooses to move into acquisition, that team will already have budget plans laid out for the relevant fiscal years and an acquisition and sustainment strategy ready to go, Thurgood said.
He explained that part of the “valley of death” challenge for transitioning research and development programs into acquisition programs is that, by the time testing wraps up and the Army can declare an R&D project a success, the service is already writing budget plans for two or even three years out.
For industry, that gap doesn’t work: they can’t put their research teams on hold for two years until the Army is ready to resume work on a project.
Thurgood said the early integration of the PEO into the prototyping effort would smooth the transition from development to acquisition, ensuring there are no gaps in funding.
In the case of hypersonic weapons, Thurgood said another challenge to moving quickly has been developing an industrial base that didn’t previously exist.
“Unlike ammunition, where they have an industrial base that can build ammunition, there is no industrial base that can build a hypersonic glide body — so we’re building that as we’re doing it,” he said.
Though defense contractors usually spend years and millions of dollars in internal investments to study a problem area and hone possible solutions, Thurgood said the Army didn’t have time for contractors to start from scratch. The only American organization that knew how to make a hypersonic missile glide body was Sandia National Laboratories and the government researchers there who invented the technology.
The Army awarded Dynetics a contract for the glide body in what Thurgood called a leader-follower strategy, where Dynetics would learn from Sandia researchers in New Mexico and then go off and build the glide bodies themselves.
“They’re actually out there right now today building their first glide body” at the Sandia lab, he said. “First they were watching Sandia, now the Sandia folks are watching them build their first glide body.”
“Think about that, how unusual that is: we’re actually having a commercial company build the glide body in an S&T facility, and then they’ll come back to their facility, a brand-new facility they’re building now, and Sandia will come back and watch them build the first one in their facility,” he added, arguing this level of collaboration is the only way to make the rapid prototyping effort work.
Finally, Thurgood said another key to moving quickly is working collaboratively with joint partners: in this case, the Navy. Rather than try to develop a weapon separately and go through flight tests separately, the Army is in charge of the glide body portion of the hypersonic missile and the Navy is in charge of the rocket portion.
Both services will be involved in all the flight tests and share the data so the testing phase moves as quickly as possible and both can meet their rapid fielding timelines: a ground-launched version for the Army in 2023 and submarine-launched version for the Navy in 2025.
While the hypersonic program may be something of a unique case — racing to develop a brand-new technology even as great power competitors China and Russia are doing so too — Thurgood said this rapid acquisition model is already in use in other programs.
Marcia Holmes, Thurgood’s deputy, said during the presentation that in July 2020 the rapid acquisition office was tasked with filling a mid-range capability (MRC) gap: something shorter than the range of a hypersonic missile but longer than the Precision Strike Missile’s initial capability of roughly 499 kilometers.
Using all the same principles of the hypersonic program, the Army moved out on MRC. It worked with the Navy to use existing hardware, software and training related to the Navy’s Standard Missile-6 and Tomahawk missiles. It put soldiers on site at flight test events so they could start providing early feedback, which would be rolled into the Army’s design and TTP development effort. And PEO Missiles and Space is already involved and awaiting the project to transition by FY23.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.