DARPA Pushing Hypersonic Missile Development To Meet Russia, China Capabilities

The head of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) is looking to speed up the development of hypersonic missile capabilities to meet those of Russia and China, including seeking more funding to grow the number of test facilities.

DARPA is moving forward with several projects to advance flight testing and build new engines for reusable platforms, but more can be done to make hypersonics a national defense initiative, Steven Walker, the agency's director, told the Defense Writers Group on March 1.

DARPA Director Steven Walker

DARPA Director Steven Walker

“We very much acknowledge we’re in a competition with countries like China and Russia,” Walker said. “We really tried to convince the department that we needed a national initiative in this area. We did push for a very comprehensive initiative in the budget process this fall. We did receive a budget increase at DARPA to do more hypersonics. I don’t think we got everything we wanted, but it was a good first step.”

Walker said he has pushed for an increase in the DARPA budget to grow the number of facilities needed for its hypersonics program  to catch up to China and Russia’s capability development.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 1 said that his country has already developed hypersonic weapons.

DARPA’s requested FY '19 budget includes $256.7 million for hypersonics, up from $108.6 million, but most of it is dedicated to continuing existing test programs.

“The dollars that were allocated in this budget were great and they were really focused on adding more flight tests and getting some of our offensive capability down the line for our operational prototypes. We do need an infusion of dollars in our infrastructure to do hypersonics,” Walker said. “If you look at some of our peer competitors, China being one, and you look at the number of facilities they’ve built to do hypersonics it surpasses the number we have in this country.”

Most of DARPA’s hypersonics development is conducted out of NASA”s Langley Research Center, but Walker said he hopes to work with Mike Griffin, the new DoD under secretary of defense for research and engineering, to develop an infrastructure plan for more comprehensive facilities.

“I’ve been told by Mike personally that this is going to be one of of his top priorities as he comes into that job,” Walker said.

DARPA’s timeline for hypersonics, meaning missiles that can travel over five times the speed of sound, is still on track to develop strike capabilities by 2020, ISR capabilities by 2025 and usable technologies by 2030, according to Walker.

The office’s two joint programs with the Air Force Research Laboratory -- Tactical Boost Glide and Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapons Concept -- look to define air-launch capabilities for future hypersonics.

Flight tests for capabilities developed under both programs are expected to start in 2019, according to Walker.

“We’re excited that these will be systems that will be very capable, and that we can use from standoff because that’s one the things that hypersonics provides you. The speed provides you a lot of range,” Walker said.

DARPA’s FY '19 budget request also included increased funds for an Air Force follow-on program to develop hypersonic launch operational prototypes for delivery in 2022 or 2023.

The office’s Advanced Full Range Engine program with NASA is working to develop a lifecycle propulsion system for reusable hypersonics platforms.

“With this you could take off like an airplane, fly it from mach 6, do your mission and them come back down. And then be able to do it again,” Walker said.

Delivery for the program’s test engines, which combine off-the-shelf turbine engines with reusable scramjets, is expected for 2019 or 2020, according to Walker.

“This is becoming not just a [science and technology] thing, but the services are engaged and interested in moving forward with these capabilities,” Walker said.





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