After repeated warnings that Russia and China have developed a hypersonic missile that could punch through U.S. missile defenses, the U.S. Air Force says it will spend an estimated US$1 billion ($1.3b) to develop one of its own.
The service announced Wednesday that it has awarded Bethesda, Maryland-based defense giant Lockheed Martin a US$928 million contract to design, develop and test an air-launched hypersonic strike weapon, a plan that one official described as the second of two U.S. efforts to develop a hypersonic weapon. The other is a project jointly managed by the Air Force and DARPA, the Defense Department's weapons development agency, called the Tactical Boost Glide program.
Both are part of a program to develop advanced prototypes that can later be fielded on U.S. jets.
"The Air Force is using prototyping to explore the art-of-the-possible and to advance these technologies to a capability as quickly as possible," said Air Force media operations chief Ann Stefanek.
Lockheed Martin executives have emphasized hypersonic aircraft and weaponry as an area of intense interest.
"We are committed to the development of state-of-the-art hypersonic technologies, and we are excited to get to work on the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon program," Jon Snyder, Lockheed Martin's vice president for Air Force Strategic Programs said in an emailed statement.
Defense Department officials have warned publicly that hypersonic weapons could theoretically punch through U.S. missile defenses, which are meant to protect the United States from a nuclear first strike, by traveling far faster than the speed of sound. Anything traveling faster than Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, is considered hypersonic and may be too fast for some systems to shoot down.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, during an address to his nation last month, boasted that the Russian military had developed and tested a hypersonic missile, and U.S. officials have said that China has a similar capability.
Michael Griffin, the Pentagon's research and development head, labeled it the Defense Department's "highest technical priority" at a defense industry conference last month, and sounded the alarm again Tuesday in a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee.
"In my opinion today the most significant advance by our adversaries has been the Chinese development of what is now today a pretty mature system for conventional prompt strike at multi-thousand kilometer ranges," he said.
"We will, with today's defensive systems, not see these things coming," Griffin told members of Congress. Once we do see them, he said, "we will have very little time left to respond."
The weapon Pentagon aims to acquire is expected to be an air-launched cruise missile that can be launched from a fighter jet or bomber. A document published last year identified just five companies - Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and Orbital ATK - as potentially capable of meeting the Air Force's needs.