A top Navy official said the service is on track to deploy hypersonic weapons to a surface ship then a submarine later this decade, as long as they restart testing and finish an underwater test facility.
“We are on a path and we’ve been hitting our milestones. We’ve been doing everything that we told Congress we were going to do. We’re going to deploy Conventional Prompt Strike,” which the Army calls the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, “or the all-up round. It’s going to be exactly the same for the Army and the Navy, whether it goes on the Zumwalt or whether it goes on Virginia – it is the exact same round,” Director of Strategic Systems Programs Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe said during the Naval Submarine League’s annual symposium on Nov. 18.
The Defense Department is developing a Common Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB) to be used by the Army, Navy and Air Force for the hypersonic weapon mission. The Army and Navy are sharing the same All-Up Round that encapsulates and launches the weapon, with the Army using a truck and the Navy using vessels as basing. The Air Force will use a separate launching mechanism.
The Navy is leading development for the C-HGB and All-Up Round while the Army is managing production.
“We’re going to deploy it to the Army in FY ’23–they’ll deploy their first battery. We’re on a path to get to the first Zunmwalt in ‘25. And then we’re on a path to get to the first Virginia-class in ‘28, once that submarine comes out with the Virginia Payload Module. And we’re looking at ways can we accelerate that even sooner into the block buys with the Virginia…to get that capability.”
In April, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said the Navy intended to field hypersonic weapons first aboard the three-ship Zumwalt-class destroyers by 2025 before moving on the Block V Virginia-class attack submarines with the Virginia Payload Module (VPM) that launches missiles vertically (Defense Daily, April 29).
This changed the previous plan, detailed by Wolfe last year, to deploy the weapons with the Army first in 2023 before they are loaded into Ohio-class non-nuclear weapon guided-missile submarines (SSGNs) by about 2025 and then later to Block V submarines in 2028. The Block V attack submarines aim to replace the missile capability of the four SSGNs after they are retired (Defense Daily, Nov. 18, 2020).
On Nov. 18 Wolfe admitted the Navy originally planned to field hypersonic weapons on the Ohio-class guided-missile variants (SSGNs) in 2025, but they had to divest of those plans due to budget cuts that prevented the service from building an underwater launch test facility.
That delay combined with the impending retirement of the SSGNs led the Navy to redirect submarine-based hypersonic weapons only on Virginia-class attack submarines with the VPM.
Wolfe said the Navy is trying to leverage what it will learn from the Zumwalt-class preparation for the hypersonic weapons to apply to the Virginia-class.
“Even though it’s different, it’s a surface platform, but a lot of the things that were going to test on Zumwalt are still going to be applicable to Virginia. And we’re looking at how we can get that learning to get to a platform sooner. But a lot of it’s going to be driven by how much budget do we have to get the underwater launch test facility done, to get the rounds into production, so that if we’ve got a platform that’s available earlier, the weapons system will be ready to go on that.”
Wolfe said keeping the process on schedule is restarting the in-air launch testing within 2022 to help understand how to launch the weapon from a submarine.
“We got put on pause because of…some budget cuts. But we’re going to restart that this year. And that in-air launch testing really is to make sure that we understand, ultimately, how we’re going to get to Virginia. We’re going to resume building–we are going to build an underwater launch test facility that is going to be absolutely critical to proving this before we get to the first Virginia-class when we do that and we’re going to re-start, again, coming up this year. And that’s going to give us…a full-up test facility so that we understand how that system’s going to work as it comes out.”
Wolfe said the Navy plans to conduct two flight tests with the all-up round in FY ‘22.
He added that the Navy plans to “do all of the other testing around it to make sure that it’s safe, and make sure that we understand all of these sensitive munitions, and all of the things. And we’re going to start ramping up to where we get to five advanced payload modules, which will go into the DDG-1000 and go into the Virginia.”
Wolfe also boasted about the DoD’s testing process and how they plan to add improvements over time.
“If you just look at where we’ve been at here in the last year, we’ve actually had three successful solid rocket motor static tests here recently. We did three of them, two first stage and we did one second stage. We’ve completed our first slug test that proves that we understand the capability to actually eject this weapon–because it’s got to be cold launch… So we just came through understanding all of that technology on how we’re going to do cold launch and that was extremely successful. We’ve completed our first vibration test vehicle, which is really the first full-up vehicle that we’ve built in the new facility that was stood up to produce this weapon. We’ve done that. And we’ve actually had it out, we’ve actually shipped it out to prove all the logistics as well.”
Wolfe said the Navy is continuing to look for capabilities that will make the system more robust and better.
He noted in a recent test at Wallops Island, Va., in October the Navy launched three rockets the same day featuring 21 experiments.
Wolfe said some were early technology development efforts to gain data to see if it is promising, some were for technology maturation to possibly add to the weapon, and it also included NASA and Missile Defense Agency experiments, too.
He said the Navy has scheduled time for the program to receive technology updates at regular intervals.
“We’ve got technology insertion points on two-year centers. So every two years, when we have a technology that’s ready, that’s either been proved in labs and we’ve got confidence in it, whether we’ve done sounding rocket tests – whatever it is, when it’s to the right technology readiness level, we’ve already had pre-designated insertion points planned in the program that we’re going to cut it in,” Wolfe said.
“When a technology’s ready, we’re going to figure out how to get it into the system because that’s how we’re going to stay ahead of what everybody else is doing. That’s how we’re going to continue to put capability in our warfighter’s hand,” he continued.