If the great Space Race that began in the 1950s helped define technologies that would take satellites and mankind into space, a new kind of global competition today will define technologies that move at more than five times the speed of sound.
The U.S. Air Force this week awarded Lockheed Martin Corp. a contract to develop a prototype hypersonic cruise missile, or the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon. The project -- one of two hypersonic weapon prototyping efforts the service is pursuing -- could cost as much as $928 million over the course of its lifetime.
The award comes as Pentagon officials say they fear the U.S. may be lagging behind in hypersonics, while rivals Russia and China have made hypersonic technologies national programs of record and have made recent advances. Like nuclear weapons, officials have said speedy weapons can act as deterrents, as well as game changers, in responding to conflict from hundreds of miles away.
"The Air Force is using prototyping to explore the art of the possible and to advance these technologies to a capability as quickly as possible," spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in a statement.
The service did not specify a timeline for the contract, as "funds are not obligated on this contract vehicle until task orders are issued and awarded," Stefanek said on Wednesday.
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Aside from additional concepts underway from the Air Force Research Lab and DARPA, the Air Force is also setting funds aside for its Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon, known as "Arrow." According to the fiscal 2019 budget request, the Air Force is asking for roughly $260 million for the Arrow experiment.
'It just means it goes fast'
One company that specializes in rockets, engines, missiles and spacecraft has been rapidly prototyping a variety of concepts in hopes of gaining more footing in the hypersonics game.
Aerospace and defense tech company Orbital ATK has in recent months tested a partially 3-D printed hypersonics warhead and a 3-D printed supersonic combustion ramjet, or scramjet, engine part.
The company deemed both to be successful, and is waiting until the Defense Department chooses what type of weapons it may someday want to procure.
In its research and development phase, Orbital has been designing a hypersonic warhead to start preparing for "that day when somebody will want a hypersonic" mission, said Bart Olson, vice president of strategy and business development for Orbital ATK's defense group.
"They went from design to production to test in 60 days," said Michael Kahn, president of Orbital ATK's defense systems group.
In late March, the company for the first time tested a 50-pound warhead partially made with additive manufacturing, known as 3-D printing.
With the help of 3-D printing, engineers can work faster and make parts much more cheaply, Olson and Kahn said. Military.com sat down with both executives on April 10 during the annual Sea-Air-Space conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
"Three-D printing is a big deal for us, especially from the engineering perspective because you can design something ... that you can't build with conventional machines," Kahn said.
The challenges for any weapon going beyond Mach 5 speeds has been to prevent overheating and control how the weapon strikes a target, Kahn said.
Olson said its common to tailor the warhead to the effects needed. But in hypersonics, there's more of an emphasis on fragmentation at such high speeds.
Depending on launch platform -- air, land or sea -- the company is testing payloads from as small as 7 inches to 40 inches in diameter.
"We're involved in the entire tradespace," Olson said.
The 'secret sauce' to hypersonics? Their engines and propulsion, they say.
"We've been building hypersonic engines for many years, for NASA, the Air Force," Olson said. "We currently hold the record for the fastest air-breathing demonstration in history, which was a Mach 10-plus."
"We have motors that come in all shapes and sizes," he continued. "On the propulsion front, we've had numerous tests of solid propellant solutions and ... on the air-breathing side, all across the spectrum of need."
Kahn added how it's propelled shouldn't matter. "Hypersonics just means it goes fast," he said.
In January, the company announced a partnership with DARPA to study a possible integration of turbine and hypersonic engine technologies under DARPA's Advanced Full Range Engine (AFRE) program.
Orbital said they're encouraged by recent commentary from Mike Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, who has zeroed in on hypersonics, but also other emerging technologies in an era where Russia and China continue to make vast strides ahead of the U.S.
The U.S.'s "earlier research work in hypersonic systems development was basically what our adversaries have used to field their own systems," Griffin told lawmakers this week.
"It is time for us to renew our emphasis on and funding of these areas in a coordinated way across the department, to develop systems which can be based on land for conventional prompt strike, can be based at sea, and later on can be based on aircraft," he said during a House Armed Services committee hearing on innovation.
There has been more of an "energy from DoD" to get hypersonics involved in major systems beyond just design phases, Kahn said.
"Up until now there's been a lot of design, a lot of testing, not a lot of fielding," Kahn said.
Olson added, "We're very encouraged by ... the new philosophy from new leadership to go on past it."
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter ar @oriana0214.