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How Sandia hopes to accelerate US hypersonic weapons development

You want this to go faster? OK, send in the contractors. That'll do the trick

The US government's hypersonic weapons programs may have been lagging behind international rivals, but at Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, there's a plan to accelerate the process by opening its doors to hundreds of contractors who've previously not been allowed inside the secure facility. What could possibly go wrong?

Described by the US government lab as an "unprecedented" initiative, the proposal by Sandia manager and senior member of technical staff Scott Nance, is spurred by bringing in outsiders to meet the Department of Defense's exacting three-year timeline to develop a hypersonic glide body. 

"We were given three years to take our design, redesign it to meet the Department of Defense's weapon system requirements, make it more producible, get it into production and get it fielded. [That's] a time scale that was very hard to meet," Nance said

The US has been accused of being a hypersonic laggard, with China and Russia both reportedly fielding the devices and even North Korea appearing to be further along in developing battle-ready hypersonics than America. 

DARPA said around a year ago that American hypersonics were ready for the real world, and in late 2022 the US Air Force announced the successful test of its first fully-equipped hypersonic missile prototype. The USAF followed that announcement a few days later with news of a new $344m deal for a hypersonic spy craft that would look like a missile but serve a reconnaissance role.

However, the Air Force said it was dropping its agreement with Lockheed Martin, which built the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) after too many failed tests.

Help us, Sandia, you're our only hope

Although the US hypersonics effort has hit a major setback with the end of the ARRW program, it's hardly the end of the American military's plans for the weapons. There's also the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, or HAWC, that's been developed by DARPA and Raytheon, and Sandia National Labs' work.

Of course, bringing a bunch of non-national lab folks into a highly-sensitive facility is sure to ruffle some national security feathers but, as Nance mentioned, it may be the only option - and so far it's worked well Sandia said. 

"[Representatives from third-party companies] built Sandia flight hardware side by side with us, learning our culture, learning our language, learning our design and our drawings, and then they were able to take the information back to their companies," Nance said.

The program to bring the third-party employees into Sandia started in 2019 with 14 people. In six months there were 138, and at its peak (Sandia didn't specify when that was) around 200 partners from seven companies were involved, with around 50 on site at Sandia at a time.

"National security is our business. For nearly 75 years, Sandia has adapted to our country's evolving needs while maintaining national security as a top priority," a Sandia spokesperson told The Register

To satisfy the national security concerns, the lab required companies and their employees to sign safety and security agreements, go through the same ethics and counterintelligence training as Sandia staff and have their DoD security clearances verified - national laboratories use the Department of Energy's security clearance system, which is different from the DoD's. 

At the end of 2022, Sandia said it had produced its first hypersonic flight system, components for which are now being produced at various facilities around the US, usually in the right congressional district for further funding. 

"We have the knowledge and the expertise. Now it's our turn to pass the baton to another company for production," said Sandia's Heather Sandoval, who helped develop the plan and train partners for work at Sandia. 

Nance said that he sees Sandia's strategy as a model for future programs, and Sandia said it "could change how [the lab] approaches technology transfer projects in the future.

We asked if Sandia could share any possible future projects with us, but a spokesperson only told The Register that the national lab is "interested in whether this new way of partnering could support other programs at Sandia, and we're evaluating some options." ®

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