A new hypersonic weapon program is on the horizon for the Air Force, per an April 27 solicitation seeking sources for a new air-breathing, hypersonic conventional cruise missile.

The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Armament Directorate is conducting market research to find vendors capable of systems integration of a Weapon Open System Architecture (WOSA)-based, solid-rocket boosted, air-breathing, hypersonic conventional cruise missile, air-launched from existing fighter/bomber aircraft into a preliminary design, per the solicitation.

“In order for a vendor to be deemed qualified, its capability statement must demonstrate its capability in the following:  sustained air-breathing hypersonic propulsion (ramjet, scramjet, or dual-mode), stable hypersonic aerodynamics, aero-thermal protection systems, solid rocket motors, warhead/missile integration, advanced hypersonic guidance, navigation, and control including advanced subsystem technologies and communications, and fighter/bomber weapon integration,” it said. The directorate anticipates achieving a Preliminary Design Review (PDR) by the end of fiscal year 2021.

The Air Force plans to pursue a similar process as it did for its two hypersonic standoff weapon development programs – the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW) and the AGM-83 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), said Will Roper, Air Force acquisition czar in an April 29 teleconference. Lockheed Martin [LMT] was lead contractor on both efforts until the Air Force canceled HCSW in its FY ’21 budget request (Defense Daily, Feb. 10).

“We would absolutely pursue this the exact same way we did with HCSW and ARRW,” he told reporters on the call. “It’s a rapid prototyping, Section 804 program which is not encumbered by unobtainable requirements, because it’s meant to produce a militarily relevant system as fast as possible.”

Scramjet technology has developed faster than anticipated, Roper noted. “I have been exceptionally impressed by what new manufacturing techniques are enabling scramjet design [and] fabrication,” he said. “Scramjet is much more mature and ready to go than I originally thought, and so we’re preparing to begin a hypersonic cruise missile program on behalf of the department.”

The Air Force plans to leverage ongoing scramjet technology work happening at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), he added. “I expect we will be able to go pretty quickly on this.”

In 2019, Northrop Grumman [NOC] and Raytheon [RTN] announced a teaming agreement to work together to build hypersonic weapons under the $200 million Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) program for DARPA and the Air Force (Defense Daily, June 18, 2019). Later that summer, AFRL announced it had set a new record for hypersonic scramjet engine thrust in a test of a Northrop Grumman-built engine (Defense Daily, August 6, 2019).

Another benefit to building a hypersonic cruise missile along with the boost-glide ARRW effort is it diversifies the Air Force’s supply chain, Roper noted. As the Defense Department has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Air Force and broader DoD are thinking very strategically about how to maintain its supply chain and reduce vulnerabilities, he said.

“It will be a very different system with very different suppliers, and it’s another reason that we need to get moving on it,” Roper said. “In the world of competing technology, you can’t afford to have any blind spots.”

Responses to the April 27 solicitation are due by May 11. A request for proposals date was not yet revealed.