WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is seeking information from industry about hypersonic cruise missile technology, with the hopes of starting up a new prototyping program in the near future.

The service issued a sources sought notification on April 27 asking companies to submit information about air-breathing conventional hypersonic cruise missiles that could be launched from fighter jets and bombers.

The responses will help the Air Force determine whether to begin funding a new program of record and figure out how quickly it will be able to field the new weapon, said Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper.

“In the case of how fast we could go with the scramjet technology getting into cruise missile and missionizing it, I think we can go fast,” he told reporters April 30. “I don’t know how fast — that’s why we’re reaching out to the street. But given how far scramjet technology has matured, I’d expect that we’ll be able to go pretty quickly on this.”

According to the solicitation, the service would aim to conduct a preliminary design review in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2021. The technologies offered should feature ramjet, scramjet or dual-mode propulsion — a major difference from the hypersonic weapons currently under development by the Defense Department, which are all boost glide missiles.

There are multiple advantages to fielding air-breathing and boost glide hypersonic weapons, Roper said. Boost glide missiles fly just below space, above the “thick atmosphere” where scramjet missiles would fly. That allows scramjet missiles to take on certain missions and targets that boost-glide systems cannot engage.

“In the world of competing technology, we can’t afford to have any blind spots or cede any ground. So we’re preparing to make sure we don’t cede ground on scramjet technology and hypersonic cruise missiles as a whole,” Roper said.

“We will have greater flexibility with this as a whole. That’s one reason we’re interested in accelerating the technology. It’s mature, it’s ready. It will give our operators greater flexibility.”

It will also allow the Defense Department to diversify the number of companies that can produce hypersonic weapons, he said.

“In the case of boost glide technology, a lot of our major programs in the department go to the same suppliers,” in part because those companies have pioneered materials and components that have not been replicated throughout industry, Roper said. “One of the reasons I’m excited about starting a hypersonic cruise missile program is that we will have different suppliers. It’s a very different technology.”

Roper said the hypersonic cruise missile effort would involve inputs from the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

In particular, DARPA’s Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, or HAWC, effort could inform the new program. As part of the effort, a Raytheon-Northrop Grumman team and a Lockheed Martin-Aerojet Rocketdyne team are building scramjet-powered hypersonic vehicles.

“Scramjet technology has come a long way. I have been exceptionally impressed by what new manufacturing techniques are enabling,” Roper said. “I entered this job thinking scramjet will probably be a step behind boost glide. I am delighted to say that I was wrong. Scramjet is much more mature and ready to go than I originally thought.”

The Air Force may be embarking on a new hypersonic weapons program just months after canceling one of its two development efforts, the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon, or HCSW. Although HCSW showed promise and was on track for flight tests, the service killed it the fiscal 2021 budget rollout this February in favor of the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon.

Both ARRW and HCSW are boost-glide weapons made by Lockheed, but the Air Force decided to pursue ARRW because it was more affordable and could be carried in larger quantities by the B-52 and F-15 aircraft, Roper said.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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