US amends hypersonic weapons strategy: If you can't zoom with 'em, boom 'em
DARPA awards Boeing $70.5M to develop intercept technology
No longer content to trail its rivals in the development of hypersonic weapons, the US military is turning to development of hypersonic weapon interceptors.
"Turning to" may be a bit of an exaggeration since the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Glide Breaker program has been around since 2018, and two previous contracts for the base phase of the project were awarded to Aerojet and Northrop Grumman in early 2020. Boeing's $70.5 million award is the first for phase two of the project, however.
Phase 2, according to DARPA, will see Boeing work on "quantifying aerodynamic jet interaction effects that result from DACS [divert and attitude control system] plumes and hypersonic air flows around an interceptor kill vehicle," while phase 1 saw the earlier contractors developing and demonstrating the DACS to "enable a kill vehicle to intercept hypersonic weapon threats," the research agency said.
Boeing's announcement of its new contract includes a bit more detail as to what that will involve between now and 2027, when its role in the program is expected to complete. According to Boeing, it'll be performing "computational fluid dynamics analysis, wind tunnel testing and evaluation of aerodynamic jet interaction effects during flight tests," in line with DARPA's description of the phase's labors.
Based on that, and the original bid solicitation, it seems more like Boeing will be gathering data on existing designs and concepts, which was backed up by company officials. "We're focusing on the technological understanding needed to further develop our nation's counter-hypersonic capabilities and defend from future threats," said Gil Griffin, executive director of Boeing Phantom Works Advanced Weapons.
"This phase of the Glide Breaker program will determine how factors like hypersonic airflow and firing jet thrusters to guide the vehicle affect system performance at extreme speed and altitude in a representative digital environment," said Griffin.
Ultimately, what DARPA wants is a device able to launch from the ground "utilizing a divert-and-attitude-control-system-propelled kill vehicle" for taking out enemy hypersonic weapons, DARPA said.
Glide Breaker is designed to intercept hypersonic weapons which are able to fly at speeds faster than Mach 5 while maintaining maneuvering capabilities. In particular, Glide Breaker is designed to intercept hypersonic weapons during their "glide" phase, the period in which they've accelerated through their initial ascent and have taken on a flat trajectory toward their target.
If you can't beat 'em, shoot 'em out of the sky
Hypersonic weapons are able to cross vast distances at incredibly rapid speeds and have begun a new intercontinental arms race as the US and its rivals compete to achieve hypersonic supremacy. So far no one has managed to announce mastery of hypersonic arms, but several countries have already claimed to be zooming past the US.
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Things are a bit more clear in the US, where DARPA has previously claimed one of its hypersonic testbeds was ready for the real world. Despite those claims, other hypersonic missiles being developed by the US Air Force have proven less reliable, with Lockheed Martin's hypersonic ARRW eventually being canceled due to repeat failures.
US research labs, meanwhile, have said the DoD's hypersonic timelines are "very hard to meet," with officials from Sandia National Lab in New Mexico suggesting opening secure lab doors to commercial contractors if the generals want their new missiles in a reasonable time.
Whether hypersonic weapon intercept systems will be any easier to develop is also questionable. Northrop Grumman, which worked on phase one of Glide Breaker, describes intercepting hypersonic missiles as trying to "hit a bullet with a bullet" – no easy task.
Far from simply shooting one missile at another, Northrop Senior Manager for launch and missile defense systems Tyler St. Onge said counter-hypersonic systems are complex and multi-facted.
"It starts from knowing that a threat is going to launch and includes sensing it, ensuring that the interceptor is getting real-time updates on the threat's location and verifying that we have intercepted the most likely threat in a complex scene," St. Onge said.
How far along DARPA is on such a complex, multi-component, and plausibly space-based project is, like a lot of sensitive information around hypersonic weapons programs, unknown. Given the state of the US's hypersonic weapons, it's probably going to be a while until such a defensive system becomes reality.
The US DoD and Japanese Ministry of Defense also announced recently that they're in talks to jointly develop a hypersonic defense system. ®