Related Video Above: B-1B Hypersonic Weapons Bay
The Army and Navy together conducted a ground-breaking hypersonics flight “shot” test of the Common Hypersonic Glide Body planned to arm the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike weapon and the Army’s emerging Long Range Hypersonic Weapon.
Called a “flight campaign,” the test was conducted by Sandia National Laboratories as part of an accelerated effort to mature, refine and fast-track a new generation of hypersonic weapons to operational status.
“This test demonstrated advanced hypersonic technologies, capabilities, and prototype systems in a realistic operating environment,” a Navy report said.
Common Hypersonic Glide Body (GHGB)
The CHGB is now being developed through a deal between the U.S. Army Hypersonic Project Office, Dynetics Technical Solutions and General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems. Dynetics, operating with technological, electrical and manufacturing support from GA-EMS, is now producing 20 prototype glide bodies.
“Our all-up round (CHGB) is a 34-inch booster which will be common between the Army and the Navy. We will shoot exactly the same thing the Navy shoots out of a sub or ship,” Robert Strider, Deputy, Army Hypersonic Project Office, told an audience Aug. 11 at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville Ala.
The glide body is a warhead which gets thrust into the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds traveling five or more times the speed of sound. Once airborne, the weapon can skip along the upper boundaries of the earth’s atmosphere before relying upon the sheer speed of its descent onto a target. Destruction of a target can be accomplished by the sheer force and speed of impact.
“We bring expertise in manufacturing highly complex systems, a long-standing relationship with Sandia National Laboratories, and prior experience on the Block 0 glide body, to this high priority national security program,” Scott Forney, president of GA-EMS, said in a company statement.
While many of the technological specifics of the glide body are not likely to be available for security reasons, the warhead is likely being engineered by GA-EMS for maximum penetration capability as well as precision-guidance, high-speed flight and durability. Building a resilient glide body sufficiently hardened against attempted enemy intrusions or defensive tactics is also quite likely to be a huge emphasis.
The Navy report on the test offered little detail but did say the services were pursuing an ambitious testing schedule to ensure hypersonic weapons are accelerated with a sense of urgency.
“During weapon system development, precision sounding rocket launches fill a critical gap between ground testing and full system flight testing. These launches allow for frequent and regular flight testing opportunities to support rapid maturation of offensive and defensive hypersonic technologies,” the Navy report said.
While both the Army and Navy weapons will use the same glide body, the services are each tailoring their respective launchers and weapons systems, the Navy report said.
Hypersonic Weapons Advantages
The principle tactical advantages of a hypersonic weapon are not only related to speed to impact and in-flight maneuverability, but the tremendous challenge they present to enemy ground and space-based sensors and radar detection systems.
An interesting October, 2021 Congressional Research Service Report on Hypersonic Weapons explains that the speed and parabolic trajectory of a ballistic missile makes it possible for ground-based radar to track its approach during the earlier phases of its flight.
Hypersonic weapons, however, are much more difficult to track as they travel from one radar “field of regard” or aperture to another so quickly that it can become nearly impossible to establish any kind of a “continuous track.”
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Also, the CRS report explains that if the weapons are detected at all, it will not be until the later or end-portions of its trajectory, a circumstance which naturally offers defending forces little or no time to respond or counterattack.
It seems clear that hypersonic-weapon-armed Navy platforms will introduce paradigm-changing tactical advantages for maritime warfare. The Navy plans to arm its Zumwalt-class destroyers with the now-developing Conventional Prompt Strike hypersonic weapon which, like the LRHW, will fire the HCCHGB. The developmental timeline, the CRS report states, is aimed at deploying CPSs on Zumwalt-class destroyers by 2025 and Virginia-class Attack Submarines by 2028.
Developers of the Army’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon, which will fire the Common Hypersonic Glide Body, are intensely committed to succeeding with an ambitious delivery schedule to ensure the weapon is ready by 2023.
“The Army decided that we need to move forward rapidly,” Lt. Gen. Neil Thurgood, Director for Hypersonics, Directed Energy, Space and Rapid Acquisition, told an audience at the 2021 Space and Missile Defense Symposium Huntsville, Ala.
The sped-up timeline is due to several key Army weapons development imperatives to streamline the often multi-year acquisition process through increased digital engineering, early prototyping, soldier evaluations and finding an effective 90-percent solution which may be excellent yet still not perfect. Formal or traditional acquisition milestones, for example, can be spread apart by years, causing unwanted bureaucratic delays. However, various functions can be integrated and soldier evaluations can be prioritized early on to enable the ability to refine and improve requirements for the weapon.
The LRHW is configured to travel aboard an Air Force C-17 to a hostile forward location, set up for a launch and destroy enemy targets at hypersonic speeds before returning to home base.
This level of independent warfare ability with hypersonic missiles, expected by 2023, will be preceded by a series of what Strider called Joint Flight Campaigns involving tests, assessments and technological refinements of the weapon.
Initial configurations include plans to deploy a missile battery of four launchers and a battery operations center. Each launcher contains two hypersonic missiles, indicating a total of eight LRHWs in a battery. The first shot off of a transporter is planned for Joint Flight Campaign 2 in 2022.
“We took existing trailers and modified them with hydraulics and electronics and everything associated with being a launcher. We know what these systems are capable of,” Strider said.
A deployable, road-mobile hypersonic weapon could introduce an entirely new sphere of problems and complications for an adversary.
Should a battery able to fire eight LRHWs arrive in a sensitive forward location, with an ability to quickly power up and launch from changing locations on a mobile launcher, would put enemy forces, command and control, air defenses and possibly even ships at sea at great risk of destruction.
Should a hypersonic weapon, able to travel at five times the speed of sound, land in closer proximity to a set of enemy targets, they could destroy high-value targets much faster and make them extremely difficult if not impossible to defend against.
Perhaps most of all, having a mobile, expeditionary hypersonic attack capability in this fashion would surely make launch locations much more survivable. An enemy might not have the ability to know, find or follow any given launch point given that the LRHW weapon itself could maneuver into position.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox