In recent months, it has become increasingly clear that the United States has fallen behind in the emerging technology realm of hypersonic missiles. These new platforms, capable of sustained speeds in excess of Mach 5, are already making their way into the arsenals of the Russian and Chinese militaries, with the United States recently projected to be at least two years behind. However, what the U.S. appears to have lacked in foresight when it comes to disruptive technologies, it hopes to make up for with funding — with nearly $1.5 billion allocated to Lockheed Martin in the past few months to expedite the development of two American hypersonic missile platforms.
There are other American hypersonic programs in development as well, including a hypersonic glider under development at DARPA (with some technology cross over between that and one of Lockheed’s programs) and the general assumption the the Navy’s classified submarine launched anti-ship missile that was leaked recently by Chinese hackers may also be able to attain hypersonic velocities. However, these four programs (and whatever others may remain hidden behind classified lines of accounting) don’t seem to be enough to ease concerns that the United States now finds itself playing catch up regarding a technology that could feasibly change the voice of warfare. Those concerns seem to permeate throughout the Pentagon, as the Air Force released yet another hypersonic contract announcement early this week that seems to suggest the United States is in the market for just about any new program that might give them an edge in this race America has been dangerously slow to enter.
The posting reads:
The Department of Defense, United States Air Force (USAF), Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC), Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC), Armament Directorate, is currently conducting market research on hypersonic weapon rapid development, production, and sustainment. AFLCMC/EB is considering the viability of a multiple award Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity contract vehicle.
It’s the end of that guidance that warrants particular attention, because it seems to suggest that the Air Force isn’t looking to award a contract regarding hypersonic technologies, but instead may be willing to offer multiple contracts to more than one outfit that seems capable of offsetting the capability gap presented by Russian and Chinese hypersonic technologies.
It’s difficult to assess the strategic drive behind this new announcement, as it could feasibly be driven by two very different mindsets. The first may simply be that the United States recognizes hypersonic technology as the way of the future, particularly in this era of competing air defense systems like Russia’s S-400 claiming the ability to shoot America’s workhorse Tomohawk missiles out of the sky. Hypersonic platforms travel too quickly for traditional intercept assets like those — in fact, there is currently no air defense apparatus on the globe believed to be able to reliably shoot down hypersonic missiles in flight.
The second possibility is that the United States, concerned about the lead and potentially by details of Russia or China’s platforms the public is not yet privy to, is now looking to close the capability gap faster if at all possible, going so far as to offer what amounts to open ended contracts aimed specifically at offsetting the edge national opponents currently have in this realm.
In either regard, it would appear the U.S. government is now looking to pour even more funding into the field of hypersonic technologies, suggesting that the United States no longer has its eye on catching up in the hypersonic domain, it seems American means to dominate it.