Video Above: Hypersonic Weapons | Army Research Lab
Beneath the surface of continued discussions of Chinese and Russian hypersonics weapons tests and demonstrations, the US has been making its own breakthrough progress with first-of-a-kind hypersonics.
The Army’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW), for instance, is on track to be operational as soon as next year. The prototypes exist and have been in development for many years. In anticipation of entering the weapon into operational service, the Army is planning an aggressive testing schedule.
“We're at the point now where this is kind of the year of testing. So there's a series of test events coming up that are going to tell us exactly where we are, in terms of hitting that 2023 goal, to make sure we get the first actual weapon capability fielded in a real Army unit. There is a lot of excitement over the next year in terms of how our test activities run. Then we're going to know where we are,” Mr. Douglas Bush, Assistant Secretary of the Army, Acquisition, Logistics & Technology, told Warrior in an interview.
The Army approach is multi-pronged, meaning the service is both focused on near term delivery and longer term hypersonic weapons development. Firing weapons at five times the speed of sound to massively shorten the timeframe for attack changes the paradigm for current concepts of operation, yet further enhancements are expected to involve the use of new, more heat-resistant materials or breakthrough guidance systems. Mr. Bush and his team of weapons developers work in partnership with the Army Research Laboratory.
Video Above: Acquisition, Logistics and Technology - Hypersonic Weapons
Some of these questions are now being explored through cutting-edge basic research efforts at the Army Research Laboratory, where teams of engineers and scientists are experimenting with mixtures of ceramic, metal, polymer or composite materials at the microscopic level to uncover better “performing” materials with which to engineer the weapons of the future. While the work could yield near-term applications in the event of breakthrough testing, much of the exploration is aimed at uncovering “disruptive” or what could be called “massive,” paradigm-changing scientific breakthroughs.
Specific materials built into weapons systems bring distinct properties such as being lighter weight, more resistant to penetration or perhaps better equipped to maneuver and manage accurate flight at previously unimaginable and impossible temperatures.
Nicholas Ku, a Materials Engineer, Ceramic and Transparent Materials Branch, at DEVCOM Army Research Laboratory spends his time mixing, testing, heating and experimenting with different combinations of materials in search of breakthrough discoverings.
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Video Above: Army Research Lab | Hypersonics
“Ceramics are of interest for hypersonics applications, through the way additive manufacturing has an ability to create complex shapes, decrease manufacturing costs as well as increase the design space in making new components,” Ku told Warrior during a special Warrior visit to the ARL laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.
What might some of these innovations be? Naturally some of the specifics related to future weapons capability are not likely to be available for understandable security reasons, yet senior weapons developers have discussed some long range plans for hypersonics. One of them, for instance, involves plans to integrate a “tech insertion” into operational hypersonic weapons to enable the weapons to adjust to moving targets in flight and potentially destroy or take out maneuvering targets.
“We have plans to roll in additional technologies once we get the first baseline capability fielded. I think the Army is committed to doing that. Because it is moving very quickly. and you'd expect the counter technologies will also move quickly. So you have to be in a constant kind of innovation pace there to keep up with the threat,” Bush said. “I think hypersonics overall fits into precision at range, and mass precision at range. I think that's the trend of where technology is going. Happy to see the Army already has a program to try to continue to do that over time,”
The promise of these anticipated adaptations intended to further build and improve hypersonics weapons capability has inspired optimism among senior Army weapons developers.
“Right now, we are cautiously optimistic. There are a lot of new technologies. So sometimes you do run into bumps in the road, but I think the team can handle the bumps. And we have strong support from both inside the Army and across the department for this kind of capability. Because I think there's a clear recognition that it's needed. I'm hoping the Army gets there as planned next year,” Bush said.
Interestingly, the Army’s LRHW program involves a collaborative effort with the Navy to develop and utilize a Common Hypersonic Glide Body (CHGB) which will be adapted for specific, yet different weapons systems for the Army and the Navy.
“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 last Aug. 11, 2021 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.
“It's really a joint program, we're really working very closely with our Navy partners on that, so that's another example. It's not called a joint program, but it really is with the Navy that I think it's a really good success story so far,” Bush said.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and 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 News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
Warrior Maven and the Center for Military Modernization support the US Military and the need for continued US Modernization. However, Warrior Maven and the Center for Military Modernization do not speak for the US military or any US government entity. The Center is an independent entity intended to be a useful and value added publication for thought leadership and important discussion about modernization. Warrior Maven discusses and explores technologies, strategies and concepts of operation related to modernization and the need for deterrence and continued US military readiness, training and preparation for future conflict in a fast-changing threat environment. Warrior Maven does receive some support from private industry but all thoughts are those of the authors.