The Navy will focus in 2020 on developing hypersonic weapons at breakneck speed, with testing to occur throughout the year, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said Friday in a message to the fleet.
Modly’s memo, SECNAV Vectors 9, likens the need to develop hypersonic weapons today to 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik. The U.S. scrambled to respond to the new reality: the Soviet Union was in space, and the U.S. was not.
“The bottom line is that our Navy and Marine Corps team will need to move forward together, reaping the keen intellects and experiences of everyone onboard today in order to fully leverage the full potential of these new weapons in the future,” Modly wrote.
Two years ago, Russia claimed to have already deployed hypersonic missile systems in the south of the country, according to media reports of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s March 2018 State of Russia address.
“This historic hindsight should heighten our awareness that major technological breakthroughs such as hypersonic weapons can destabilize the global security environment and pose an existential threat to our nation,” Modly wrote in the memo.
“In fact, the possible applications of hypersonic technologies have already changed the nature of the battlespace, much as nuclear technology did in the past century. That is why when it comes to hypersonic weapons, our command today must be ‘All Ahead Full.’”
The U.S. has sought since the early 2000s to develop hypersonic weapons — maneuvering weapons capable of flying at speeds of at least Mach 5 — as a part of a conventional prompt global strike program, according to a July 2019 Congressional Research Service report.
The Navy is leading the current U.S. military effort to develop hypersonic weapons. This spring, Modly said, the Navy plans to demonstrate the Navy-designed Hypersonic Glide Body. Hypersonic launcher testing will occur throughout the year.
The Navy is focused on moving toward fielding hypersonic weapons, which means the defense industry will start playing a more significant role in programs.
“As we begin the transition from a development effort to fielding capability, production facilities are ramping up to meet high capacity demand,” Modly wrote in Vectors 9. “Initial investments have been made by the Department of Defense and industry to establish production capacity, which will continue under Army and Navy-funded efforts in 2020 and beyond.”
During a conference call with analysts earlier this week, Marillyn Hewson, the chief executive of Lockheed Martin, said that “development work on new hypersonic and classified programs” were among the reasons why the company’s Missiles and Fire Control segment reported strong growth in 2019.
“Our hypersonics portfolio experienced tremendous growth during 2019, with the total potential value the corporation has received now exceeding $4 billion,” Hewson said during the call.
For now, the demand for hypersonic weapons is mostly for strike capabilities, rather than defensive hypersonic systems designed to stop an incoming missile, Ken Possenriede, the chief financial officer of Lockheed Martin, said during the call. The company had been working on counter hypersonic systems but shifted focus to offensive hypersonic missiles.
“There is a variety of hypersonics awards that will come out this year,” Possenriede said.
Lockheed Martin is not the only contractor developing hypersonic technology. The possibility of lucrative hypersonic contracts spurred defense contractors to acquire firms with missile or space expertise.
In June 2018, Northrop Grumman paid $9.2 billion to purchase aerospace and technology company Orbital ATK. The acquired company, renamed Innovation Systems, “expands the Northrop Grumman portfolio into hypersonics. We have traditionally been counter hypersonics, but this expands us into weapons systems. This significantly expands our portfolio of offerings to our customers,” Kathy Warden, now chief executive of Northrop Grumman, said during a July 2018 conference call.
Last summer, United Technologies Corp. announced a plan to buy Raytheon in an all-stock deal that will create a defense industry giant. The new company, to be named Raytheon Technologies, will have estimated annual revenues of $74 billion, surpassed by only Boeing among U.S. defense aerospace and defense industry companies.
Cash flows from the combined operations will fuel the development of directed energy weapons, hypersonic weapons and counter-hypersonic missile systems, said executives from both Raytheon and United Technologies when they justified the deal to analysts during a pair of July 2019 conference calls.
“Given the growth in the DoD research and development spending and the broad shift to new technologies to provide solutions to counter peer threats in 2018 and 2019, the growth rates for the R&D accounts were higher than the growth rates of the base budget and overall modernization accounts,” Tom Kennedy, the chief executive of Raytheon, said during a July conference call with analysts.
Raytheon and United Technologies are expected to close their deal later this year.
“Our research enterprise has developed several recent technological breakthroughs in hypersonic design that will introduce an entirely new generation of capabilities, rapidly changing the way we fight as an integrated naval force,” Modly wrote in Vectors 9.
“Most importantly, we are redefining the cutting edge of hypersonics with the indispensable help of active duty and reserve naval officers and enlisted experts, working side by side with our workforce civilian scientists and engineers. Marines and sailors will employ these new weapons, creatively exploring the depth of their operational uses in conventional deterrence and force protection. “