The high costs of hypersonic missiles that may entail a unit cost in the tens of millions of dollars will likely mean that the United States will not field high numbers of them in the near term, U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said on Feb. 15.
“The Chinese continue to invest on their side so I don’t think there’s any question we’re gonna want to keep moving the technology forward,” he told a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies forum. “But the specific applications are going to be based on cost effectiveness and a number of other factors. Cost is going to be a big driver. Hypersonics are not going to be cheap anytime soon. I think we’re more likely to have relatively small inventories of hypersonics than large ones, but that still remains to be seen, and hopefully we can drive the cost down so that they’re more attractive.”
Kendall also said on Feb. 15 that hypersonics is not the U.S.’ only option to penetrate heavily defended airspace and that stealth aircraft may also serve that purpose.
Last month, Kendall warned against the United States mirror imaging Chinese hypersonic weapon efforts and said that the countries have different target sets (Defense Daily, Jan. 19). On Feb. 15, Kendall said that Air Force efforts are focused on hitting maneuverable targets, while Chinese efforts have dealt with fixed targets, such as air bases.
During a virtual roundtable meeting with senior Pentagon leaders this month, industry executives working on hypersonics told the officials there is a need to expand access to modeling capabilities and testing facilities “in order to adopt a ‘test often, fail fast, and learn’ approach which will accelerate the fielding of hypersonic and counter-hypersonic systems,” DoD wrote in an announcement detailing the session.
“Executives from more than a dozen companies of varying scale attended the roundtable and discussed supply chain and production capacity constraints across markets; the challenges posed by continuing resolutions; access to test facilities; workforce needs; and government acquisition barriers,” the Pentagon wrote. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin joined the meeting briefly, according to the Pentagon, and cited a “need for persistent dialogue in order to meet the department’s current and future capabilities requirements for defensive and offensive capabilities.”
Kendall said on Feb. 15 that each of the military services may play a role in developing and fielding hypersonic missiles and that any redundancies may provide the U.S. with a deeper hypersonic backfield.
But he has also said that the Air Force needs more analysis on trade-offs between hypersonic weapons’ benefits and the weapons’ high costs.
Prime among the Air Force hypersonic efforts has been the Lockheed Martin [LMT] AGM-183A Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), which failed three booster flight tests last year in April, July, and December.
“I think there was a rush to hypersonics in the previous administration that at the time I questioned, ‘Is this really the right path for the United States?’ I still have some of those questions,” Kendall said last month.