EGLIN AFB — Barely two weeks after the Air Force awarded a nearly half-billion-dollar contract for design and construction of a hypersonic missile — under a program to be managed by the Air Force Armament Directorate at Eglin Air Force Base — the directorate has issued an even broader call for development of hypersonic weapons.
Hypersonic weapons, which can travel at up to five times the speed of sound, and can be launched from aircraft, present a couple of advantages over existing weapons. Their speed allows them to quickly penetrate deeply into enemy territory, and also means there is little time for enemies to defend against them.
In a solicitation to potential contractors issued Aug. 30, the Armament Directorate, whose mission is "to equip warfighters by acquiring and supporting war-winning capabilities," notes it is "currently conducting market research on hypersonic weapon rapid development, production, and sustainment."
The announcement, basically a request for interested vendors to outline their qualifications in the hypersonic weapons realm, goes on to hint strongly at the possibility of multiple contract awards based on those responses.
The solicitation comes on the heels of the Air Force's Aug. 13 award of a "not-to-exceed" $480 million contract to Bethesda, Maryland-based defense contractor Lockheed Martin. The contract, managed by the Armament Directorate, calls for the fast-tracked design and development of an "air-launched rapid response weapon" (ARRW) by Nov. 30, 2021. Work will be done at Lockheed Martin's Missiles and Fire Control division in Orlando.
That contract award followed the April award of a nearly $1 billion contract to Lockheed Martin's Space Systems Division in Huntsville, Alabama, for the design and development of a "hypersonic, conventional, air-launched, stand-off weapon" (HCSW). Like the ARRW program, the $928 million HCSW program is being managed through the Armament Directorate.
The solicitation issued last week is looking specifically for contractors with expertise in "hypersonic aerodynamics" and "advanced hypersonic guidance, navigation, and control" among other qualifications.
The all-out push for hypersonic weapons development in the U.S. Air Force comes as China and Russia are also developing hypersonic weapons.
The Air Force has been interested in hypersonic weapons development for some time, dating back to the X-15 rocket plane program of the 1950s and 1960s. On Oct. 3, 1967, the X-15 set a world speed record of Mach 6.7, nearly seven times the speed of sound.
The Air Force's latest interest in hypersonics can be traced to a May 2017 meeting among Air Force leadership. At that session, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, an Air Force acquisitions official, said, "We simply can’t get where we need to go without continued science and technology investment ... that can meet our timelines for an operational capability."