Lockheed Officials Discuss Hypersonic Challenges Following Pricey U.S. Missile Delay

Lockheed Officials Discuss Hypersonic Challenges Following Pricey U.S. Missile Delay
A Dutch Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter jet takes off at Edwards Air Force Base, California, on November 24, 2015 (Photo: David McNew, Getty Images)

U.S. hypersonic weapons systems are becoming the military’s perpetual late kid leading to growing frustration among some lawmakers who worry Uncle Sam’s ceding ground to Russia.

This week, the U.S. Air Force admitted its first hypersonic missile system had hit another hiccup resulting in up to a year’s worth of delays. Officials had hoped the Lockheed Martin designed missile, dubbed ARRW, would achieve “early operational capability” by Sept. 30 this year. Now, following a series of reported “flight test anomalies,” that’s not expected to happen until next fiscal year. The news comes just days after the Air Force revealed its new $US3.9B billion Air Force One model would be delayed for at least two years.

Gizmodo joined a small group of reporters on Thursday to speak with two senior Lockheed Martin officials at the company’s secretive Skunk Works base located in the sprawling deserts outside Los Angeles. When asked about ARRW, Atherton Carty, Vice President of Customer Requirements at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works said he was still confident in the project despite recent hurdles.

“We don’t see it as stepping back,” Carty said. “We are just as convicted, we have just as much belief in the technology and our approach and our solution as we ever have.” Carty stood beside Senior Director of Business Development Craig Johnston who acknowledged some of the delays. “Because of the slower pace where we have been successful, it makes sense to spend a little bit more time getting this right,” Johnston said.

An aerial view of the desert near Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works facility.  (Photo: Mack DeGeurin)An aerial view of the desert near Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works facility. (Photo: Mack DeGeurin)

Lockheed Martin stands at the forefront of the United State’s hypersonic weapons push. Hypersonic missiles travel five times faster than the speed of sound, making them potential game changers for evading enemy defences and a deeply coveted gem for militaries around the world. Hypersonic missiles are a tier above supersonic missiles which travel one to five times faster than sound. Subsonic missiles, by contrast, travel slower than the speed of sound.

Wednesdays’ delays weren’t ARRW’s first detours. The missiles were knocked off schedule last year, Bloomberg notes, after failing three consecutive booster motor tests. Around the same time, a CNN report this week claims the U.S. successfully tested a separate hypersonic missile, (called The Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, or HAWC) last month, but kept the news tight-lipped to avoid antagonizing Russia.

“This is very hard. We have multiple generations of attempts at making viable hypersonic solutions a reality”

Speaking on hypersonic technology generally, the Lockheed Martin officials complained of limited and ageing testing infrastructure.

“We do have aged infrastructure and one of the real challenges with hypersonics is you can only test so much of it on the ground,” Johnston said. Even with plenty of investment, Johnston added, you can’t necessarily anticipate what’s learned in-flight. “A lot of the discovery happens on game day when you try to fly.”

Some of those infrastructure challenges, according to Carty, come in part from a limited supply of adequate wind tunnels. “We don’t have multiple hypersonic wind tunnels, we have a few key facilities that are really national treasures,” Carty said. “If one of those goes down, it kinda brings the whole test infrastructure and that process to a pause.”

Interest in hypersonic weapons dates back nearly a century and has proved particularly challenging for engineers due to a number of fundamental physics problems, including extreme heat and difficulties around control and guidance at such high speeds. “We’ve come close many times and have run into a lot of obstacles, from materials, to vehicle design, to thermal management,” Carty said.

Bottom line, Carty added, “This is very hard.”

Did Russia Use a Hypersonic Missile in Ukraine?

On March 19, the Russian Defence Ministry claimed it used a Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missile to attack and destroy an underground Ukrainian arms depot. The Defence Minister claimed the missiles were fired from a MiG-31 warplane. If that’s true, it would mark the first known instance of such a weapon being used in battle according to the BBC. Biden has since confirmed Russia’s use of the missiles. China, for its part, also reportedly tested a hypersonic missile last year.

Russian officials also posted this video online supposedly showing the aftermath of the hypersonic attack, but like almost everything related to this conflict, it’s incredibly difficult to verify the government’s claims. In other words, take Russia’s (or really anyone’s) claims with a grain of salt.

Other reports in Politico and elsewhere citing U.S. Defence officials claimed Russia had been forced to launch the advanced hypersonic missiles because the military had already begun to deplete its conventional missile stockpile after hurling an estimated 10,000 or more into Ukraine after just one month. U.S. DoD Secretary Lloyd Austin entertained that theory on Face the Nation last month. These claims, once again, are difficult to confidently confirm.

Russia’s alleged advancements in hypersonics has, unsurprisingly, captured the attention of an assortment of U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle who claim the U.S. might be losing its military leg-up on Russia. At the same, U.S. Military spending in 2020 (clocking in at around $US1.9 ($3) trillion according to World Bank data) makes Russia’s $US62 ($86) billion look like pocket change. The Biden Administration also just proposed a $US813 ($1,129) billion 2022 Defence budget, the priciest in the nation’s history and a 4% increase from last year.

Regardless Jay Pitman, Lockheed’s vice president for strike weapons, told Bloomberg he, “understands the urgent need for hypersonic capabilities,” and that to meet that need, they’re working to develop ARRW “at a highly accelerated pace.”

Back at Skunk Works, Carty tried to strike a confident tone, and said potential missteps notwithstanding, he still saw a light at the end of tunnel for hypersonic development.

“The progress we’ve seen here [on a variety of hypersonics] just in this recent chapter is one of the biggest steps we’ve seen in making true on that dream of a practical realisation of hypersonics.”