What are hypersonic weapon systems?
Hypersonic weapons are missiles that travel at speeds in excess of Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound). These extreme speeds are intended to make them very difficult to intercept and able to surprise an enemy with a precision strike. They also differ from ballistic missiles in that hypersonic weapons utilize a very ‘flat’ target trajectory and are intended to be maneuverable throughout their flight.
Hypersonic weapons generally fall into two broader categories:
- Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV) – HGVs are launched from a rocket and then enter hypersonic travel in a glide phase
- Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCM) – HCMs are self-powered by scramjet engines when towards their target
Hypersonic weapons are of military interest because their high speed, maneuverability, and low trajectory make them very difficult to detect by terrestrial-based radar systems until much later in the weapon system’s flight. This late detection further complicates the command and control decisions as well as the challenge of technical interception of the weapon.
Most conventional hypersonic weapons utilize kinetic energy which is the energy generated by the weapon system’s extreme speed to destroy its target. Certain Chinese and Russian hypersonic weapons are intended to carry nuclear payloads.
Hypersonic weapons are of interest to the U.S. military because they provide the ability to rapidly attack targets with minimal chance of interception / defeat. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (VC-JCS) General John Hyten categorized the need for “responsive, long-range, strike options against distant, defended, and/or time-critical threats when other forces are unavailable, denied access, or not preferred.” Additionally, the growing hypersonic capabilities within the militaries of near-peer countries (e.g. China, Russia) creates the need for a similar capability within the U.S. military.
What are examples of U.S. hypersonic weapon programs?
Multiple U.S. military branches are pursuing hypersonic programs, including:
- US Army
- Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW)
- US Navy
- Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS)
- US Air Force
- AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW)
- Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM)
- Expendable Hypersonic Air Breathing Multi-Mission Demonstrator Program
- Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)
- Operational Fires (OpFires)
- Tactical Boost Glide (TBG)
- Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC)
- Missile Defense Agency (MDA)
- Hypersonic Defense Regional Glide Phase Weapons System interceptor
Where do hypersonic weapons sit in their development curve?
In the United States, hypersonic weapon systems are in a relatively early state of development. While the idea of hypersonic munitions has been around for quite some time, serious investment in technology and operational products only began our of haste in 2018. Some of the technology development has surrounded ramjet engines capable of Mach 5+ travel while other efforts have focused on the materials required to sustain extreme temperature fluctuations while remaining lightweight and strong. With multiple branches of the U.S. military pursuing slight variations of hypersonic missiles for their own branch needs, the entire breadth of the defense industry is engaged in the development of these systems within the United States.
The American defense establishment is limited by a few key factors on the trajectory towards operational hypersonic weapons:
- Limited test facility and ranges
- Limited supply chain capable of producing high tolerance, complex components using exotic materials
- Long-range flight test corridors
As of this article, the U.S. Military and defense prime contractors are actively testing prototype hypersonic weapons across the full range of programs.
How are hypersonic weapons made?
While the exact manufacturing processes and engineering designs remain classified, the basic manufacturing process is similar to other aerospace and defense programs. The United States Department of Defense establishes the requirements (in this case for hypersonic weapons) and then defense primes and aerospace original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) bid on the work. Once a Prime and/or OEM is selected to produce the weapon, it is then up to that company to develop a manufacturing program and supply chain to support it. In most cases, Primes and OEMs work with contracted machining suppliers and/or aerospace component manufacturers experienced in complex machining to produce the high-tolerance parts that form the backbone of the hypersonic weapon. Other supply chain partners focus on electronic components, fasteners, carbon fiber components, controls, and aerodynamic surfaces. These suppliers (known as Tier I and II Suppliers) produce components and assemblies that are ultimately assembled into the finished hypersonic missile by the Prime / OEM and destined
for the U.S. Government.
Which American defense suppliers (OEMs) are involved in manufacturing hypersonic systems?
What are unique considerations for manufacturing parts and components which support hypersonic weapons?
The supply chain for hypersonic weapon development and production is similar to that of other high-performance defense systems. Key considerations for these suppliers include:
- Rapid prototyping and development capability – As designers and engineers work through the initial design iterations, suppliers must be configured to produce prototype / Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP) parts rapidly and accurately.
- Ultra-high precision, complex machining – The high-velocity speeds of hypersonic systems requires high-tolerance components and assemblies to prevent failure during their use. These aerospace grade parts must be manufactured to exacting specifications and validated through stringent quality processes. Tolerances in the thousandths and millionths of an inch for linear, positional, and circular dimensions are common within hypersonic components.
- Ability to work with unique, exotic materials for heat tolerance and weight reduction – Hypersonic platforms and weapons experience extreme temperature fluctuations due to the speed and air friction they create. Additionally, the ability to achieve stable hypersonic speeds (Mach 5+) requires ultralight but extremely durable materials. These engineering challenges require contract manufacturers who can work with exotic alloys and materials such as Titanium, Inconel and Tantalum. In fact, the U.S. Air Force is currently sourcing carbon composite producers to develop a supply chain for production rates of ultra-lightweight structural components for hypersonic weapons.
- Suppliers configured for defense-specific security – It’s “no secret” that information and technical security is an essential part of delivering defense projects. Hypersonic projects require the highest levels of data security throughout their engineering and supply chain. The top defense suppliers (even Tier I and Tier II) must have extensive compliance experience with ITAR and relevant DFARS regulations. Additionally, hypersonic component suppliers should comply with the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) framework, accredited by an outside organization.
Primus Aerospace is a leading provider of high-precision, high-complexity machined components and assemblies for the aerospace, defense and space industries and a leading manufacturing partner to aerospace, defense & space OEMs / Primes & Tier I suppliers worldwide. Established in 1989, Primus Aerospace has grown into a vertically-integrated manufacturing operation that is strategically headquartered in Colorado and serves customers in North America, Europe, and the Middle East with a broad range of complex manufacturing, assembly, integration, and value-added services, including design & engineering support, program management and secondary manufacturing & processing capabilities. The company’s strategic focus is directed towards advanced manufacturing capabilities, automation & robotics integration and technical resources to drive turnkey solutions & world-class service for its customers. Primus Aerospace offers a broad array of build-to-print manufacturing and integration services, including multi-axis, complex machining, mechanical and electrical assembly, 3D titanium printing, water jet cutting, EDM, testing and design support. Primus is committed to delivering the most complex & critical solutions to the Aerospace & Defense industry by aligning capabilities and processes with the market’s evolving needs.