- The US Air Force put out an open-ended request Thursday for hypersonic weapon concepts and development programs from qualified vendors with experience related to hypersonic platforms.
- The call comes amid an escalating arms race with China and Russia, both of whom have been actively testing new hypersonic systems.
- A hypersonic weapon is decidedly dangerous because its speed coupled with its unpredictable flight patterns make it almost impossible for existing air and missile defence systems to effectively intercept.
- “The homeland is no longer a sanctuary,” Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, head of US North Command, said recently.
With rivals China and Russia rapidly developing hypersonic weapons able to penetrate defences to deliver devastating strikes on their enemies, the US Air Force is preparing to enter the arms race in a big way, signalling that the US is not yet ready to cede its competitive advantage in advanced weaponry to adversarial competitors.
The Air Force posted a contracting announcement online Thursday calling for qualified vendors experienced in hypersonic aerodynamics, aerothermal protection systems, advanced hypersonic guidance, navigation and control, solid rocket motors, and so on to assist the service in research on “hypersonic weapon rapid development, production and sustainment.”
The multi-award contract, as The Drive first reported, appears to be an open-ended request for any and all hypersonic concepts and development programs.
The Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a contract in August for an Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), a hypersonic weapon and the second such contract offered by the Air Force this year. The service awarded a contract to Lockheed in April for a Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW).
The Air Force reportedly has four different hypersonic weapons programs in the works for the B-52, according to The Drive, as well as submarine-launched and ground-launched systems in development. And, there could certainly be more.
The newfound interest in hypersonic weaponry comes after repeated warnings from senior military officers suggesting that the US was losing its edge to peer competitors. “China’s hypersonic weapons development outpaces ours… we’re falling behind,” Adm. Harry Harris, the former head of US Pacific Command (now called Indo-Pacific Command), said in February.
The head of US Strategic Command warned in March that the US needs to bolster its defences, explaining to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US does not “have any defence that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us.” The recently-signed 2019 National Defence Authorization Act approves investments in America’s missile defence capabilities in the face of certain emerging threats from US rivals.
“The homeland is no longer a sanctuary,” Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, head of US North Command, said recently. “We’re in a changing security environment. We used to think about the sanctuary we had with oceans and friendly countries to our north and south, but that’s changing with adversaries that are actually able to reach out and touch us now.”
In the beginning of August, China tested the Xingkong-2 (Stary Sky-2) hypersonic experimental waverider vehicle able to fly at speeds as high as Mach 6. The hypersonic aircraft reportedly has the potential to be used as a hypersonic strike platform capable of carrying conventional and nuclear payloads and evading modern air and missile defences.
China, which has made the development of hypersonic systems a national priority, called the test a “huge success.”
Russia has also been experimenting with advanced hypersonic systems. For instance, Russia is expected to deploy its Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicle on the country’s Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile within the next year or so. The Russians are also developing the hypersonic Kinzhal (Dagger) cruise missile, which could be ready for combat by 2020. While the weapon has only been tested on a MiG-31 fighter, Russia reportedly intends to mount the weapon on a strategic bomber.
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