Hypersonic Weapons on Track to Deploy on Attack Submarines in 2028

November 18, 2021 12:35 PM - Updated: November 19, 2021 8:35 AM
Rendering of Block V Virginia-class submarine with Virginia Payload Module. General Dynamics Electric Boat Image

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Navy is still on track to deploy hypersonic weapons on its attack submarines in 2028, a service official said Thursday.

While the first Zumwalt-class destroyer will get a hypersonic weapon in 2025, the first Virginia-class submarine will deploy with hypersonics in 2028, Strategic Systems Programs director Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe said today at the annual Naval Submarine League symposium.

“We are on a path and we’ve been hitting our milestones. We’ve been doing everything that we told Congress we were going to do. We’re going to deploy Conventional Prompt Strike – well for the Army it’s called Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon – or the all-up round. It is going to be exactly the same for the Army and the Navy and the Navy – whether it goes on Zumwalt or whether it goes on Virginia – it is the exact same round,” Wolfe said.

“We’re going to deploy it to the Army in FY-23 – they’ll deploy their first battery. We’re on a path to get to the first Zumwalt in ’25,” he added. “And then we’re on a path to get to the first Virginia class in ‘28, once that submarine comes out with Virginia Payload Module. And we’re looking at ways – can we accelerate that even sooner and to the block buys with the Virginia.”

Wolfe said that while the Navy originally intended to field hypersonics on the four guided-missile variants of the Ohio-class submarines in 2025, it had to alter plans due to budget cuts that prevented the service from building an underwater test facility. Because of the delay and the impending retirement of the Ohio-class boats, the Navy opted to put the weapons on the Virginia-class submarines instead.

“We’ve got to restart this year our in-air-launch testing. We got put on pause because of budget, because of some budget cuts. But we’re going to restart that this year. And that in-air-launch testing really is to make sure that we understand ultimately how we’re going to get to Virginia. We’re going to resume building and we are going to build an underwater launch test facility that is going to be absolutely critical to proving this before we get to the first Virginia class,” Wolfe said.
“And that’s going to give us, again, a full-up test facility so that we understand how that system’s going to work as it comes out.”

Asked how the Navy could speed up the timeline to place hypersonics on the Virginia-class boats, Wolfe said it depends on completion of the underwater facility.

“We’re trying to leverage Zumwalt even though it’s different – it’s a surface platform – but a lot of the things that we’re going to test on Zumwalt are still going to be applicable to Virginia. And we’re looking at how we can get that learning to get to a platform sooner,” Wolfe said. “But a lot of it’s going to be driven by how much budget do we have to get the underwater launch test facility done, to get the rounds into production, so that if we’ve got a platform that’s available earlier, the weapons system will be ready to go on that.”

The Zumwalt-class destroyer will be the first at-sea platform to field hypersonic weapons in 2025, USNI News previously reported. Wolfe said the Navy and the shipbuilders are still figuring out the maximum number of hypersonic weapons the Zumwalt destroyers can carry.

As the service gears up for this timeline, the Navy will perform two all-up round flight tests in Fiscal Year 2022.

“We’re going to do all of the other testing around it to make sure it is safe, and make sure that we understand all of these sensitive munitions, and all of the things,” Wolfe said. “And we’re going to start ramping up to where we get to five advanced payload modules, which will go into the DDG-1000 and go into the Virginia.”

The Navy recently performed several tests for Conventional Prompt Strike, the name for the service’s hypersonic weapons program. Late last month, the Navy announced it performed the second of two first stage tests of the solid rocket motor in Utah.

“If you just look at where we’ve been at here in the last year, we’ve actually had three successful solid rocket motor static tests here recently. We did three of them. We did two first stage and we did one second stage. We’ve completed our first slug test that proves that we understand the capability to actually eject this weapon – because it’s got to be cold launch, right,” Wolfe said.
“So we just came through understanding all of that technology on how we’re going to do cold launch and that was extremely successful. We’ve completed our first vibration test vehicle, which is really the first full-up vehicle that we’ve built in the new facility that was stood up to produce this weapon. We’ve done that. And we’ve actually had it out, we’ve actually shipped it out to prove all the logistics as well.”

Wolfe also pointed to a recent test at Wallops Island last month, when the service launched three rockets in one day, as an example of how the Navy can now experiment with multiple technologies at once that may be at different phases of development. The three-rocket test featured 21 experiments, he said.

To ensure sailors continue to field the most updated technology, the Navy adds in time for the program to receive new technology into its schedule ahead of time.

“We’ve got technology insertion points on two-year centers. So every two years, when we have a technology that’s ready – that’s either been proved in labs and we’ve got confidence in it, or that we’ve done sounding rocket tests – whatever it is, when it’s to the right technology readiness level, we’ve already had pre-designated insertion points planned in the program that we’re going to cut it in,” Wolfe said.
“When a technology’s ready, we’re going to figure out how to get it into the system because that’s how we’re going to stay ahead of what everybody else is doing. That’s how we’re going to continue to put capability in our warfighter’s hand.”

Pentagon officials have recently voiced concern over a hypersonic test China performed over the summer. Outgoing Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten told reporters last month that the U.S. has conducted nine hypersonic tests in the last five years, while China has performed hundreds during the same timeframe.

“Single digits versus hundreds is not a good place. Now it doesn’t mean we’re not moving fast for the development process of hypersonics. But what it does tell you is that our approach to development is fundamentally different than it used to be,” Hyten said at the time.

Wolfe argued that the U.S. understands the hypersonic technology, but has only recently had an urgent need for it due to a strategy focused on countering China and Russia.

“We’ve been looking at hypersonics for 20 plus years okay, alright. It’s just up until we’ve gotten to this point of great power competition and we’ve watched what China’s doing from the [anti-access and area denial], right, and [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command] and we watch what Russia’s now doing in the Atlantic – I will tell you it’s not a fact of do we understand the technology. We understand the technology. We just never had a need prior to this to really take that technology and turn it into a system that we can” use, Wolfe said.

The admiral said the industrial base buildup has already started so it can keep up with demand once the military starts fielding hypersonics on the designated platforms.

“We’ve got to do everything that we can do in parallel, not serial, with a sense of urgency so that when we have successful flight tests coming up here and we get ready to deploy this system to the Army, to DDG-1000, and ultimately Virginia, we have already got the capacity to be able to meet the demand of what the [combatant commanders] are going to want. So we’ve really started that.”

While Wolfe is focused on offensive hypersonics, he said he often confers with Missile Defense Agency director Vice Adm. Jon Hill to share information that could help MDA determine the best ways to defense against the hypersonic capabilities of Russia and China.

“Every time we test some of our systems, right, you can count on the fact that I’m talking to Adm. Hill at the Missile Defense Agency so that the learning we get for our offensive systems, he gets that learning to understand what does that mean to him in the missile defense world so that he can start to look at how he would counter what China and Russia are doing in hypersonics,” Wolfe said.

Mallory Shelbourne

Mallory Shelbourne

Mallory Shelbourne is a reporter for USNI News. She previously covered the Navy for Inside Defense and reported on politics for The Hill.
Follow @MalShelbourne

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