Roper: Hypersonics Capability Less Than Two Years Away

The Air Force is slated to have an operational capability with the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon by late 2020, and with a separate and more advanced capability six months after that, according to service acquisition chief Will Roper.

Speaking with reporters at the Pentagon on Feb. 6, Roper said he’s “very happy with where we are on hypersonics,” and said the HCSW will make its first flight “by the end of next year” and achieve “EOC”—or Early Operational Capability—a year after that. HCSW is based on technologies developed for the “conventional prompt strike program,” he said, and “that’s flown successfully.” He called it a “lower-risk design.”

Lockheed Martin got a $928 million contract for HCSW last June, and in August nabbed a contract worth up to $480 million for the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW, design work.

However, Roper said USAF is only now starting to “get our head around” having an adequate test infrastructure—hypersonic wind tunnels and test ranges, for example—to support the programs. That infrastructure is “declining,” he admitted. Moreover, once the new weapons are developed—and new ones follow after that—he’s concerned about whether “we have the industry base that can … build things at scale so we can buy them at scale.” He acknowledged that a company pursuing hypersonics work really has only one customer for the technology: the Pentagon.

Roper said that one of his top goals when coming to the Air Force from the Rapid Capabilities Office was to “to have a lower-risk hypersonic option, so that we can get something over the goal line, and [we] can say we have an operational capability.”

Roper characterized ARRW as “six months behind” the HCSW. It is being developed in partnership with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“It is a more advanced design; more risk,” Roper observed, but the partnership with DARPA is intended to “push” the Air Force to go faster than it usually does in introducing a new capability. Roper noted that he and DARPA conducted a review of the project last week and he pronounced it as “doing very well.” He’s pleased the Air Force has a “low risk/high risk” approach to hypersonics, and he’s also told program managers they have license to fail in the interest of learning and moving the programs forward.

“We may need to fail on these programs,” he asserted. “We may need to go have flight tests that don’t work.” Managers have been told, “go fast, have that failure happen out on the field, learn from it, fix, and get moving again.” A bad enough failure may cause USAF to “slip those dates,” but program managers offered “zero-margin schedules,” such was their confidence.

“I like that aggressive goal,” Roper offered. “We’re in the second month of 2019 and to think of doing that first … flight test by the end of next year, that is a sporty schedule. But if we’re going to compete against the threats we have, we need to get back to that.”

The Air Force, Navy, and Army are working separately on hypersonics but sharing what they learn, Roper said. “We are making sure that our technologies are available for them, … they need the same infrastructure to succeed.” The multi-service approach ensures combat commanders have “options from multiple domains.”

“I’m hoping,” Roper asserted, “in the future that hypersonics isn’t just an Air Force initiative. I hope we’re part of it, but I hope we’ll be able to talk about it as a departmental capability that you see on air, land, and sea.”