The U.S. Air Force has awarded a second contract to develop a new hypersonic weapon that would move five times the speed of sound.
The service on Monday awarded Lockheed Martin Corp. a contract -- not to exceed $480 million -- to begin designing a second hypersonic prototype, according to a release.
"We are going to go fast and leverage the best technology available to get hypersonic capability to the warfighter as soon as possible," said Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.
"The joint team requires the right mix of agile capabilities to compete, deter and win across the spectrum of competition and conflict," said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. "We must push the boundaries of technology and own the high ground in this era of great power competition and beyond."
As part of a rapid prototyping scheme, the Air Force is working with Lockheed to develop the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW, pronounced "Arrow”). The rapid prototyping effort, made possible through authorities in the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, "will provide the critical design review, test and production readiness support" for the project, the release said.
The Air Force hopes to achieve a capable weapon by 2021, it added.
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The Air Force first awarded Lockheed Martin a contract in April to develop a prototype hypersonic cruise missile, the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW). That project could cost as much as $928 million over the course of its lifetime.
"The ARRW effort is 'pushing the art-of-the-possible' by leveraging the technical base established by the Air Force/[Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] partnership," the release said. "The HCSW effort is using mature technologies that have not been integrated for an air-launched delivery system."
The Air Force said the latest award remains an undefinitized contract to allow Lockheed to begin work "before reaching a final settlement on contract terms and conditions." The final price and negotiated terms will be met within 180 days of the award, it said.
The second contract award comes after Pentagon officials said in recent months they fear the U.S. may be lagging behind in hypersonics, while rivals Russia and China have created national programs of record and reported recent advances.
"We have lost our technical advantage in hypersonics; we haven't lost the hypersonics fight," Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Air Force Gen. Paul Selva told reporters in January. "China has made it a national program, so China's willing to spend tens to up to hundreds of billions to solve the problem of hypersonic flight, hypersonic target designation, and then ultimately engagement."
Hypersonic technology offers supersonic speeds of Mach 5 or above.