The Pentagon’s new research chief said March 6 that improving the Department of Defense’s hypersonics capabilities will be his top technical priority because U.S. leadership in that area could be critical to winning future wars.

Speaking at a McAleese & Associates/Credit Suisse defense programs conference on his 10th day as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering (R&E), Michael Griffin indicated that he wants DoD to conduct hypersonic tests “at a far more rapid pace” than it does today and move more aggressively to design and field offensive and defensive hypersonic systems on land and at sea. 

Michael Griffin (NASA photo)
Michael Griffin (NASA photo)

While the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Missile Defense Agency and other agencies already have hypersonics programs, “we’re not doing enough,” the former NASA administrator told the conference audience. New budget lines for hypersonics could appear in DoD’s fiscal year 2020 budget request, if not sooner.

“The United States is not yet doing all that we need to do to respond to adversary hypersonic threats,” he said. “We certainly know how to build hypersonic systems, but we need to get on with it.”

Griffin expressed particular concern about China, which he said has conducted about 20 times as many hypersonic weapons tests as the United States has over the past decade.

He said that if China gains the ability to use hypersonic weapons to evade air and missile defenses and hold U.S. land- and sea-based deployed forces at risk in a regional confrontation, then “our only response is either to let them have their way or to go nuclear. That should be an unacceptable situation for the United States.”

Griffin’s goal is not simply to catch up to China but to gain an advantage over potential enemies.

“I didn’t take this job so that we could regain parity with our adversaries,” he said. “I want to make them worried about catching up with us.”

Griffin’s remarks came less than a week after Steven Walker, the head of DARPA, said his agency is looking to speed up the development of hypersonic missiles. Griffin’s comments also came a day after Lockheed Martin [LMT] chief Marillyn Hewson described hypersonics as one of four “transformative” technologies her company is pursuing.

Griffin is the first R&E head under a congressional mandate to separate that job from  the undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L). The split is designed to increase DoD’s focus on innovation.