By the time you finish reading this sentence, a hypersonic weapon could have flown from Mobile to Huntsville, where Lockheed Martin Space is researching and developing just such a device.
The company has a $928 million contract to develop the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon, known as HCSW, which Air Force officials say is pronounced “Hacksaw.”
In addition to the initial contract, this past August Lockheed Martin received another contract to develop the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), a hypersonic weapon prototype expected to cost “no more than $480 million” to design, according to an Air Force press release.
All of this comes after China and Russia announced the successful testing of hypersonic weapons.
A hypersonic weapon travels at Mach 5 or higher — at least five times faster than the speed of sound. This means hypersonic weapons can travel about one mile per second. Its speed makes it very difficult to detect, track and destroy.
In April, Mike Griffin, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, told the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities that “China has fielded or can field…hypersonic delivery systems for conventional prompt strikes that can reach out thousands of kilometers from the Chinese shore, and hold our carrier battle groups or our forward deployed forces…at risk.”
Griffin, former administrator of NASA and later an engineering professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, added that the U.S. does not have a weapon that can similarly threaten the Chinese, and that the U.S. has no defenses against China’s hypersonic missiles.
“We, today, do not have systems which can hold them at risk in a corresponding manner, and we don’t have defenses against those systems,” Griffin says. “Should they choose to deploy them we would be, today, at a disadvantage.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has also said that Russia successfully tested an “invincible” hypersonic cruise missile.
According to multiple reports, Russia is expected to begin production soon of its 3M22 Zircon, a hypersonic missile that will travel 4,600 miles per hour — five times the speed of sound — and will have a range of 250 miles. That’s just three minutes and 15 seconds from launch to impact.
The Lockheed Martin contracts appear to be aimed at getting the U.S. back into the game.
According to a company news release, “Under the indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract, Lockheed Martin will develop the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW), a new air-launched weapon system. The company is working closely with the Air Force to finalize system requirements under the contract’s initial task order.
“This is the first phase of a development program, with future phases progressing through design, flight test, initial production and deployment of the weapon system at early operational capability. The contract ceiling through early operational capability is $928 million.”
“Our goal is rapid development and fielding of the HCSW system, and this contract is the first step in achieving that goal,” says John Snyder, vice president of Air Force Strategic Programs on the Lockheed Martin website. “Design, development, production, integration and test experts from across Lockheed Martin will partner with the Air Force to achieve early operational capability and deliver the system to our warfighters. We are incredibly proud to be leading this effort.”
The company says the HCSW team will primarily work in Huntsville; Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and Orlando, Florida, with additional expertise in Denver, Colorado, and Sunnyvale, California.
As might be expected, at this stage Lockheed Martin and the Air Force have gone silent.
According to CNBC, a Lockheed Martin representative noted that the company will “not be able to host any interviews on this program” due to its sensitive nature.
Similarly, a U.S. Air Force spokesman said the service will not be making any announcements in the near future regarding its work on hypersonics.
Xiaowen Wang, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama, studies the behavior of hypersonic craft and offers insight into the nature of hypersonic flight.
“I am focusing on how air flows around the vehicle,” Wang says. “A lot of friction is generated at high speeds so the surface temperature can be very high, as high as 10,000 degrees Kelvin.” The Kelvin Scale is a thermometric scale used in physical science to describe the absolute temperature of an object, substance or area. While Fahrenheit and Celsius scales measure temperature, the Kelvin Scale defines temperatures relative to an object’s thermodynamic movement. Wang says the high temperature is one of the main differences between hypersonic and supersonic and subsonic.
Hypersonic craft generally have a sharp, needle-like nose, a slender fuselage, thin wings and tail surfaces and very sharp leading edges, Wang says.
An article on Thedrive.com last year says hypersonic weapon design generally “involves a booster of some sort, often a rocket motor, which gets the craft going fast enough for an air-breathing high-speed jet engine to take over. Once at its cruising speed, these power plants become highly efficient.
“But more importantly, this air- breathing engine generates a very different signature from a rocket motor, meaning space-based surveillance assets might not be able to spot one as quickly or keep tracking of it during flight, or even spot it at all for that matter. On top of that, prototype designs look much more like super-fast flying cruise missiles or drones, able to fly in more erratic ways well within the atmosphere, maybe even changing course in mid-flight relatively rapidly. This could make any such weapon more accurate, since it could make more corrections before impact, as well. A projectile flying at a mile a second would be too much to process in general for even the most fast-scanning surface- and airborne-radars that exist at present, and even if they could be tracked, engaging something going that speed within the atmosphere represents a huge set of problems of its own.”
Another component is the “SCRAMJET,” or supersonic combustion ramjet, which relies on high vehicle speed to compress incoming air forcefully before combustion and the airflow is supersonic throughout the entire engine. The engines can be used to power hypersonic missiles.
Wang says the engines are “very, very efficient so they can develop a very high thrust.”
“The weapons are so fast that if there is any sort of air disturbance they may fly away from the target,” he says.
Wang says there are only a few places in the U.S. where hypersonic vehicles can be tested. “Computers can mimic the airflow, but it is very expensive,” he says.
Has Wang ever seen one?
“No, no. There is no chance of seeing any of them,” he says.
Bill Gerdes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He is based in Hoover.