The Air Force expects to achieve first flight of its Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW) capability by the end of 2020, with a second capability coming six months later, the service’s acquisition leader said Feb. 6.

“We are hoping for first flight of HCSW by the end of next year,” Will Roper, Air Force Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said Wednesday at the Pentagon. Early operational capability would be achieved by the end of 2021, he added.

Lockheed Martin [LMT] was awarded a $928 million contract in April 2018 for the HCSW program, which is a lower-risk design where the Air Force is “leveraging technology out of the conventional prompt strike program,” Roper said. (Defense Daily, April 18, 2018). He noted that when he first joined the Air Force in February 2018 after leading the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office for six years, he was very focused on “trying to have a lower risk hypersonic option, so that we get something over the goal line and can say we have an operational capability.” The HCSW system has already flown successfully, he added.

The service is also moving ahead with its second hypersonics program, an effort co-led with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) dubbed the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW. Lockheed Martin won a contract worth up to $480 million in August 2018 for the ARRW’s design work. (Defense Daily, Aug. 13, 2018)

That effort is about six months behind HCSW, Roper acknowledged, but it is “a more advanced design” meant to “push the envelope” on hypersonics development, he added. The Air Force and DARPA reviewed the program last week and continues to perform well, he said.

The service is pushing these aggressive timelines with the understanding that some of the flight tests may not be successful and the early operational capability schedule could slip, Roper added. But the Air Force must move quickly on these programs in order to compete against “the threats we have,” he said. Russia and China have committed to developing their own hypersonics weapons systems.

“We are okay with failure. Go fast, have that failure occur out in the field,” he said. “Learn from it, fix [it] and get moving again.”

Roper added that he is “very happy with where we are with hypersonics” and noted the Air Force benefits from having a large “amenable platform” – the B-52H Stratofortress nuclear-capable bomber – upon which it can test the new capabilities. “It’s very amenable to carrying heavy things. And the fact that you can drop the booster and let it lie … it has a lot of benefits,” he said.

However, Roper said he is concerned about the declining hypersonics test infrastructure, and said he wants “higher Mach-number wind tunnels” and more opportunities at test ranges. He added that the service is “just starting to get its head around” what a potential future industry base looks like for hypersonic weapons, once the technology matures.

“Do we have the industry base that can buy things or build things at scale so we can buy them at scale? Do we have the test infrastructure to support multiple programs that are asking for the same kind of support at the same time?” he said.