WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Defense is working with a diverse industry team to develop a hypersonic testing capability to validate and field the high-speed systems on a faster timeline.
Led by the Pentagon’s Test Resource Management Center and the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Crane Division, based in Bloomington, Indiana, the Multi-Service Advanced Capability Hypersonics Test Bed aims to create a new option for defense agencies and universities as they demonstrate and validate hypersonic vehicles, materials and related technology.
Hypersonic systems can travel and maneuver at speeds above Mach 5, or about one mile per second, and DoD is on track to spend about $15 billion between 2015 and 2024 developing these capabilities. Progress has been constrained, however, by the availability of infrastructure such as wind tunnels and test vehicles, limiting the number of flights programs can conduct. Most major programs run only a few trials each year.
The goal of MACH-TB, according to Scott Wilson, the Navy’s developmental test lead for hypersonics and advanced capabilities, is to help the department increase the testing cadence to one flight per week — a target set by the Pentagon’s Principal Director for Hypersonics Mike White.
“We can’t keep doing what we’re doing in terms of operational tempo,” Wilson told C4ISRNET in an interview. “We have to test more often to collect data and provide that data to our stakeholders so they can make evaluations on their weapon systems, what they want to transition, what types of technology can help feed them and help provide additional capability.”
The Navy in September selected Dynetics, a defense technology company based in Huntsville, Alabama, to develop an experimental glide body for MACH-TB that will be used to test hypersonic capabilities that support a range of DoD programs. Dynetics will also serve as the prime integrator.
The service also identified an initial cadre of about 16 companies, laboratories, small businesses and universities that will work with Dynetics on the effort. Wilson said the list of collaborators will grow over time, but early partners include research centers like Sandia National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory as well as a range of companies, including Kratos, Peraton, SpinLaunch and Stratolaunch.
Wilson said the combined awards to Dynetics, Sandia and Oak Ridge totaled $16.5 million, which will support the program’s first phase. That early work, which will last about nine months, is focused on developing a testing “matrix” that brings together hypersonic testing requirements from across DoD.
Prepping to start tests in 2023
The information gathered through Phase One will be used to plan and prioritize MACH-TB test events. It will also help the program better understand the potential cost of the program, which Wilson said is hard to pinpoint until testing requirements are laid out.
In concert with that planning work, Wilson said his team is starting to shore up its inventory for parts and components, purchasing some items in advance so the program can be prepared to start testing next spring or summer.
Those early tests will focus on higher-priority Pentagon programs, including the Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon. LRHW is a ground-launched, boost-glide missile system that the service plans to field next summer.
The Navy is also working to complete development of its Conventional Prompt Strike missile next year and integrate the weapon into its Zumwalt-class destroyer vessel in 2025.
“I envision those first few tests directly supporting those guys as they look to transition and field these weapon systems,” Wilson said.
Jonathan Pettus, senior vice president of defense and civil aerospace at Dynetics, said that while coordinating the needs and priorities of the services and mitigating supply chain risk will likely present a challenge, the lessons learned from that work could benefit future programs.
“The government is searching for what’s the right balance between industry and government and how do you navigate the fact that there’s clearly this shared set of needs across the services,” he said. “I’m hopeful that this program can be another great stepping stone example of that.”
Speed through collaboration
The program’s outreach to small companies and commercial suppliers is an effort to take advantage of a broader pool of innovation, Wilson said. Many of these firms may not typically work with DoD, but they bring new ideas and solutions to a field dominated by large defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
“If we truly want to increase our operational tempo and reduce cost, we [have to] open this up to commercial entities,” he said.
Pettus echoed that sentiment, telling C4ISRNET that collaboration between industry and government is an essential element of MACH-TB and the nation’s approach to hypersonic vehicle development more broadly.
“The desire to go at the speed that we need to go collectively will necessitate really tight-knit collaboration across a large group of players within the government and industry,” Pettus said. “We know we’ve got to have, from the outset, a very tightly coupled team with close collaboration.”
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.