Not just rocket science: Hypersonic missiles and the U.S.

Hiccups in hitting hypersonic speeds

U.S. interest in hypersonic missiles, projectiles capable of maneuvering midflight while maintaining a minimum speed of Mach 5, has surged over the last few years. The Department of Defense’s (DOD) budget for hypersonic research grew 18.8% year-to-year from $3.2 billion in FY21 to $3.8 billion in FY22. Now, the proposed FY23 budget for this research is set to expand by 23.7% year-to-year and reach $4.7 billion.


TBR analysts anticipate the final budget will ultimately be even larger after the Senate Armed Services Committee requested in June that over $44 billion be added to the initially proposed $773 billion defense budget for FY23. [Tweet this!] Yet despite further funds being rapidly reallocated to support its hypersonic programs, the U.S. has been hampered by multiple troubling and public setbacks. In October 2021 the booster stack on the Conventional Prompt Strike prototype failed during a launch, and as a result, the hypersonic glide vehicle test was called off.


In November 2021 the U.S. Space Force’s vice chief of space operations, Gen. David D. Thompson, raised concerns that the U.S. was falling behind Russia and China in developing hypersonic technologies. In February 2022 a meeting was called between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and representatives from prominent defense contractors including Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC), Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) and Raytheon Technologies (NYSE: RTX) over the need to enhance and expedite the development of hypersonic technologies going forward. The group also discussed what has been disrupting the progress of their respective hypersonics projects. Limited usage of test sites, supply chain pressures and unsatisfactory funds were cited as persistent, underlying issues.

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On June 29, the U.S. hypersonics program incurred another setback with its Conventional Prompt Strike prototype. The Common Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB) trial was deemed a failure by the DOD after an “an anomaly occurred following ignition of the test asset,” according to Lt. Cmdr. Tim Gorman of the U.S. Navy.


While recent reports indicate that the U.S. Navy still expects the C-HGB will be ready to be fit onto a Zumwalt-class destroyer in 2025 before being integrated with a Virginia-class submarine in 2028, there is uncertainty about whether speeding up hypersonic weapons development could result in even more issues when working with these complex designs. This is especially true if access to testing facilities remains constrained, limiting the “test often, fail fast and learn” methodology associated with the nation’s hypersonic programs.


On top of trying to run tests more often and with fewer disruptions, the Pentagon has struggled to find cost-effective ways to develop hypersonic weapons. As Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu stated in October 2021, “We need to figure out how to drive towards more affordable hypersonics.” Yet the budget requests to study hypersonics have only trended upward. The Pentagon’s own estimates suggest the U.S. Air Force’s hypersonic missiles will cost up to $106 million apiece, causing concern about the feasibility of amassing an arsenal of these weapons over the next decade.

Recent progress in next-generation weapons development

While frustrations have been increasingly mounting about the state of the nation’s hypersonic weapons programs, some prolific U.S. initiatives have been making notable progress.


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) initiative led to Raytheon Missiles & Defense allying with Northrop Grumman to compete against a team composed of Lockheed Martin and Aerojet Rocketdyne (NYSE: AJRD).


In late September 2021 the Raytheon Missiles & Defense and Northrop Grumman team successfully trial-launched their scramjet HAWC from an aircraft, ensuring the missile maintained a speed of over Mach 5, approximately six months before Lockheed Martin and Aerojet Rocketdyne were able to conduct their own free-flight test. Now with the HAWC program’s flight-test goals achieved, DARPA is taking the next step by launching MoHAWC. This new initiative will see the two teams further mature their respective designs, including advancing their scramjet propulsion systems.


Beyond HAWC and MoHAWC, the U.S. government has been investing in several other offensive hypersonic weapons programs. The Operational Fires (OpFires) and Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) initiatives are a couple, but recently the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) program made notable progress. After a series of setbacks, Lockheed Martin’s AGM-183A ARRW completed its booster experiments following another successful trial on July 12, meaning that all-up-round testing will take place during 2H22.

Responding to threats faster than the speed of sound

In its FY23 budget request, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) asked for $225 million to support its hypersonic defense programs, including its Glide Phase Interceptor (GPI), a solution meant to strike a hostile hypersonic missile during its glide phase.


Raytheon Missiles & Defense, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin were awarded contracts in November 2021 to develop a GPI prototype concept design. In June the MDA moved on from Lockheed Martin for this project, compounding the contractor’s troubles after the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) blocked its acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne. The MDA has since awarded approximately $41.4 million to Northrop Grumman and $41.5 million to Raytheon Missiles & Defense to develop their own prototypes.


Northrop Grumman’s GPI design is meant to leverage the capabilities of the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS). This constellation of low-Earth orbit satellites would detect when a hypersonic or ballistic missile was fired, then relay relevant data to the GPI to assist with destroying the incoming threat. The contractor is competing to develop the HBTSS as well as the GPI, hoping to secure both contracts. Northrop Grumman and L3Harris Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LHX) are set to launch their respective HBTSS prototypes around 2Q23, which will be monitored for a period of at least six months before any final decision is made.

GAO concerns

Both the GPI and HBTSS programs came under scrutiny by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in June, with the agency recommending the DOD play a bigger role in their development. The GAO highlighted that the MDA is not actively working on the HBTSS initiative in conjunction with the DOD’s Space Force and Space Development Agency, limiting its potential positives. The GAO also indicated that the MDA was not seeking an independent technological risk assessment or independent cost estimate for the GPI.

Superpowers showcasing their recent successes

China and Russia have been increasingly flexing their newfound hypersonic capabilities on the world stage over the last year, leading to fears that the U.S. hypersonics program is underperforming.

Intelligence reports stipulate that the “routine spacecraft experiment” China claimed it conducted during August 2021 was a nuclear-capable long-range hypersonic missile that had been fired into space, rounded the globe and struck a deliberate target.


With China aiming to have a stockpile of 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030, the nation has gained a new invaluable asset. On July 4, China showcased its Feitian-1 hypersonic missile. Reports indicate this projectile does not require as strong of an initial booster as previous hypersonic weapons. It features a lightweight waverider design with an adaptable kerosene combined-cycle rocket/ramjet engine, enabling it to either deliver a heavier payload or hold additional fuel.


Russia revealed in October 2021 that the nation successfully completed its first Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile launch from a submarine, giving Russian submarines the capacity to strike targets 660 miles away at Mach 9 while remaining underwater. The nation has also been actively demonstrating the capabilities of its hypersonic arsenal in the Ukraine, utilizing Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles to wreak havoc on targets.


Dubbed the Satan-2, Russia’s RS-28 Sarmat nuclear hypersonic missile entered production in June following a successful test in April. The 220-ton, 116-foot-long intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) has a range calculated to be between 6,200 and 11,180 miles while being able to carry 15 light or 10 heavy Multiple Independently Targetable Re-Entry Vehicles (MIRVs) containing warheads to decimate multiple targets in a single launch. The RS-28 Sarmat ICBM is expected to undergo further tests in July before serial production begins.

What is next?

As the U.S. looks to remain competitive with China and Russia and expand its capabilities, more resources will be set aside to mature the U.S.’ hypersonic weapon as well as defense efforts at an expedited rate. Human-operated directed energy (DE) weapons, which could be used to defend against incoming threats, including hypersonic missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles, are an option the DOD has expressed interest in.


To function at their desired level, these devices will need AI system support to assist with targeting incoming threats, minimizing collateral damage and helping warfighters get comfortable with weaponry faster. TBR anticipates that Booz Allen Hamilton (NYSE: BAH) will be one of the leaders in getting this emerging battlefield technology to seamlessly function with AI programs that will receive data from a network of sensors. [Tweet this!] Inevitably these programs will become integral assets within the DOD’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) vision, giving U.S. armed forces an edge on the ever-evolving battlefield.


While income from hypersonic programs will not comprise the bulk of contractors’ profits, they will propel meaningful revenue growth. As a result, Alliances with peers capable of expanding a contractor’s reach will be crucial. For example, in January 2022 Booz Allen Hamilton formed a partnership with Stratolaunch to study hypersonic aerospace systems to bring more consistent and less expensive hypersonic flight environments to the DOD and others looking to conduct experiments.


Developing technology that can support the hypersonic programs will also be a way to generate new revenue streams, with Leidos’ (NYSE: LDOS) Dynetics winning a $478.6 million contract in November 2021 to design thermal protection solutions for long-range, surface-to-surface hypersonic weapons (LRHW).


Contractors will continue to position themselves to support the DOD’s vision that it will have a hypersonic missile battery by FY23, DDG 1000 ships fitted with hypersonic weapons by FY25 and a hypersonic cruise missile by FY27, yet they will also keep an eye on international interest. Analysts believe the global hypersonic technology market in 2020 was worth $4.98 billion. By 2030, they forecast it will have reached $12.2 billion and expanded at a CAGR of between 9.5% and 10%. Contractors will undoubtedly pitch their solutions to clients beyond U.S. shores in the future as global defense spending continues to ramp up.

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