Throwing out the rulebook

Academia, industry and government talk new approach to hypersonic weapons and capabilities

A view from space of a hypersonic missile in flight.

Hypersonic weapons travel in excess of five times the speed of sound—Mach 5—covering vast distances in minutes. 

The world’s superpowers have been hard at work developing and deploying hypersonic weapons – those that travel more than five times the speed of sound.

These ultra-fast weapons combine the speed of ballistic missiles with the maneuvering capabilities of cruise missiles, making them formidable both as offensive and defensive systems.

Their complexity, along with the challenges they have introduced for military and government leaders, was the focus of the virtual Hypersonic Weapons Summit, a meeting of leaders from the U.S. Department of Defense, civil government agencies and leaders in academia and the defense industry. 

“The U.S. roadmap to accelerate hypersonic weapons testing and fielding is a top priority,” said event chairman Erin Kocourek, senior director of hypersonics for Raytheon Missiles & Defense. “We are poised to take that leap forward and meet the challenges presented to us as a global power.”

Solving those challenges will require an all-hands-on-deck approach and diversity of thought, she said.

“It is imperative that across government and industry, we bring the best talent available to the hypersonic mission,” Kocourek said. “We need the A team working to advance our hypersonic capabilities at all times because our adversaries are certainly using theirs.”

As part of the event, a panel of experts discussed how the collaboration among industry, the U.S. Department of Defense and the nation’s top academic institutions is helping deliver innovation and a workforce – both needed to advance the mission.  

Panel members were:

  • Dr. Gillian Bussey, director, Joint Hypersonics Transition Office, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.
     
  • Dr. Knox Millsaps, director, Division of Aerospace Sciences, Office of Naval Research – Senior Executive Service.
     
  • Dr. Russell Cummings, director, Hypersonic Vehicle Simulation Institute at U.S. Air Force Academy. 
     
  • Dr. Rodney Bowersox, associate dean for research, College of Engineering; Ford I Professor of Aerospace Engineering, Texas A&M University. 
     
  • David W. Hahn, Craig M. Berge Dean, College of Engineering, Professor and Eminent Scholar, professor of Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering, The University of Arizona.

The Defense Department is working with the University Consortium for Applied Hypersonics, a university-led research initiative that is accelerating solutions to challenges in hypersonics, enabling the transition of capabilities into operational systems. 

“The key is that there will be greater collaboration than before,” said panel moderator Roy Donelson, executive director of Strategic Engagement Systems for Strategic Missile Defense at Raytheon Missiles & Defense. “The DOD is investing heavily in the universities with directed research of hard problems, and they are investing in infrastructure – wind tunnels, hypersonic laboratories – to help accelerate programs.”

The group discussed how universities are nimble and can pivot their focus of research laboratories to address emerging problems. For example, an additive manufacturing laboratory can quickly change to focus on materiel needs for hypersonics.    

In parallel, the university partnership is helping to create training with applied research and new master’s degree and certification programs to develop a future hypersonic workforce.

The academic professionals are confident there’s an opportunity to bring more students and new ideas into the hypersonics field. Even if technical challenges are the same, students in graduate school “disproportionally choose something exciting like hypersonics over a more vanilla project.”  

The consortium hopes to leverage the excitement of hypersonics to draw students into the talent pipeline, but the work doesn’t stop there. 

Along with growing these skillsets, they want to ensure students have jobs, so they are looking to send a clear demand signal that their investment is long term. And that would mean a more consistent approach to funding for both offensive and defensive hypersonic programs.   

Panel members also discussed how to balance the need for open ideas and an open architecture with the need to protect and control information. 

“We’re working on new models to do that—basic research and applied research—in a way that’s helpful to transition to DOD hypersonic programs,” Donelson said.

To accelerate the development of hypersonic weapons, the group is also looking to digital engineering. And maximizing testing will be key.

Modeling and simulation relies on the fidelity of test data, which will improve with increased testing and sharing of data with industry partners and allied nations. 

With the progression of design and testing, the U.S. and allied countries may soon fly hypersonic vehicles

“The technology has been researched and developed,” Kocourek said. “It’s time to test and fly.”

Published On: 04/30/2021