The Defense Department is planning a “major investment of many billions of dollars” to build components of its hypersonic weapons once production is in full swing, a top official said March 4.

As the Pentagon moves forward on a series of hypersonic weapon programs across the services’ research-and-development portfolios, Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin said the U.S. industry will have to get back to building aeroshells to support those systems.

The nation “has not been in the business of designing and producing entry-vehicle aeroshells … in decades,” he said at the annual McAleese & Associates Defense Programs Conference in Washington, D.C. “The Cold War ended 30-some years ago, and so it’s been awhile. We need to get back in that business and we are.”

Over the next year, industry can expect to see aeroshell investment to be a significant part of the department’s hypersonic budget, Griffin added.

The U.S. military needs to prepare to accumulate new weapons at a rapid rate to deter peer adversaries, and can do so by investing in production of hypersonic weaponry at scale, he noted.

“We’re actually to the point where we’re beginning to believe that … we have the technology close to being in hand,” he said, referring to rocket-boosted hypersonic glide vehicles. He referenced the recent R&D investment in air-breathing technologies as an example of how the department is prioritizing hypersonic development.

Defense officials briefed reporters earlier this week on the status of several hypersonic programs, including the Army’s Conventional Prompt Strike program and the Air Force’s Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) program (Defense Daily, March 2).

The U.S. military must be prepared for threats in the hypersonic domain by countries such as China, and needs to be able to see potential attacks in areas like the western Pacific with space-based sensors, Griffin noted.

A key priority for DoD in that domain is the Hypersonic Ballistic Tracking and Sensor System (HBTSS), a program that is being conducted by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA and the nascent Space Development Agency (SDA), he said. “We are, over the next couple of years, doing the actual experiments necessary to figure out what sensors we have to have to be able to track these things,” he said. “Frankly, we don’t know those answers yet; we have conjectures, but we’re not going to build an architecture based on conjectures.”

HBTSS would help supplement the U.S. military’s early missile warning satellite constellations such as the Space-Based Infrared Sensors (SBIRS) or the forthcoming Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) systems to detect and track hypersonic weapons in space.

Last year, the MDA selected four companies to design new space sensors for HBTSS. Raytheon [RTN], Northrop Grumman [NOC], Leidos [LDOS] and L3Harris Technologies [LHX] were each awarded $20 million to submit a prototype design by Oct. 31, 2020 (Defense Daily, Nov. 1, 2019).