WASHINGTON — The Missile Defense Agency has chosen Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon Missiles and Defense to design the Glide Phase Interceptor (GPI) for regional hypersonic missile defense, the agency announced Nov. 19.
The agency awarded other transactional agreements for an “accelerated concept design” phase of the program, according to the statement.
The interceptors are intended to counter a hypersonic weapon during its glide phase of flight, a challenge as the missiles can travel more than five times the speed of sound and can maneuver, making it hard to predict a missile’s trajectory.
The interceptors will be designed to fit into the U.S. Navy’s current Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense destroyers. It will be fired from its standard Vertical Launch System and integrated with the modified Baseline 9 Aegis Weapon System that detects, tracks, controls and engages hypersonic threats, the statement notes.
“We are pleased to have these contractors working with us to develop design concepts for the GPI,” Rear Adm. Tom Druggan, MDA’s Sea-based Weapon Systems program executive, said in the statement. “Multiple awards allow us to execute a risk reduction phase to explore industry concepts and maximize the benefits of a competitive environment to demonstrate the most effective and reliable Glide Phase Interceptor for regional hypersonic defense, as soon as possible.”
The initial development phase “will focus on reducing technical risk, rapidly developing technology, and demonstrating the ability to intercept a hypersonic threat,” according to a Nov. 19 Raytheon statement.
“Raytheon Technologies systems are the cornerstone of today’s ballistic missile defenses. We’re building on that knowledge to advance the missile defense system for future threats,” Tay Fitzgerald, Raytheon’s vice president of strategic missile defense, said in the statement. “GPI’s speed, ability to withstand extreme heat, and maneuverability will make it the first missile designed to engage this advanced threat.”
All three companies have experience in hypersonic weapons development.
Both Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are also competitively developing scramjet-powered hypersonic missiles as part of the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) program run by the Air Force and DARPA.
And Lockheed is the lead systems integrator for what will be the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike offensive hypersonic missile and the Army’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon. Northrop Grumman designed the motor for both weapons.
Lockheed is also developing the Air Force’s hypersonic AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon.
Northrop began a push to develop hypersonic missile capability in 2019 when the Pentagon made hypersonic capability a priority and Lockheed Martin broke ground on a new facility in Alabama that same year geared toward developing, testing and producing hypersonic weapons.
The Missile Defense Agency hit the pause button on its effort in the summer of 2020 to bring a defensive hypersonic weapon online. But MDA took steps this year to move forward again and received feedback from industry confirming a glide phase interceptor is something that can be done “and we shouldn’t be afraid to go do it,” Vice Adm. Jon Hill, MDA director, told Defense News earlier this year.
Just a year ago, MDA had a different answer on where it was going with hypersonic defense, focusing on solutions under development in the science and technology phase, Hill said.
But after taking a step back and assessing the U.S. ballistic missile defense capability, the agency realized it already had some means to tackle hypersonic weapons using sea-based assets like a Navy Carrier Strike Group with the ability to engage high-speed maneuvering threats during the terminal phase of flight.
The Aegis ship, which boasts launch-on-remote weaponry, is capable of seeing hypersonic weapons in the battlespace because, “remember, they’re not very high,” Hill said. “They are around 70 kilometers.”
Future efforts already scheduled to come online are systems like the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS), a satellite that will be placed in low-earth orbit to spot hypersonic missiles in flight, and the SPY-6 radar will further increase the ability to track hypersonic threats, Hill added.
The agency decided it would make the most sense to focus on taking out hypersonic weapons in the glide phase of flight, where they are most vulnerable, Hill said.
MDA then assessed current and possible capability and concepts to be able to detect, track and intercept a hypersonic weapon in that glide phase.
The agency also studied data from adversaries’ systems. “Our adversaries are constantly flying these things and we are collecting that data with the existing sensor architecture,” Hill said. “We were pulling that data down and we could run it through our high fidelity systems models.”
Taking that data, MDA asked, “What sort of material do we need on the seekers? What sort of divert capability do we need? Do we use a fragmentation warhead or do we want to do hit-to-kill in the glide phase because it’s a different battle? It’s a different environment,” Hill said.
MDA has discovered it can use the existing booster stacks and can focus on developing a front end for an interceptor, Hill said. What’s missing now is the weapon, he noted.
Armed with the new strategy, the agency came out with a solicitation to industry asking for white papers on solutions for its GPI in April.
While the MDA is still doing risk reduction for more exquisite capabilities to be brought online later, Hill said, “from a regional perspective, we can go after this now.”
The agency will first focus on providing a capability to the Navy. “If this is successful,” Hill said, “we can move it to the land-based battery to protect other things against that sort of hypersonic threat.”
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.