DOD Needs to Pick Up the Pace of Hypersonics Testing, Experts Say

It’s urgent the Pentagon invest in more hypersonic test capabilities and accelerate the pace of testing if it’s to catch up to Russian and Chinese developments in the field, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), chair of the House hypersonics caucus, said May 12.

“We must expand testing and make it cheaper and more accessible. Testing is fundamentally in a logjam,” Lamborn said at a seminar discussing the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute’s new report on deficiencies in the national hypersonics industrial base.

The lack of adequate test facilities—compounded by the need to test other other strategic programs—is “impeding forward progress in many defense technologies, but specifically hypersonics,” Lamborn said.

While “deconflicting test range schedules among other programs is challenging enough,” it becomes “all but impossible” to maintain a steady test-assess-retest rhythm, the congressman noted.

Each time a hypersonic test occurs, the military must position a series of tracking vessels, known as the “String of Pearls,” in the ocean to collect data. The process is so fraught with delays and hiccups, “it’s enough to make some want to throw up our hands and walk away from the endeavor entirely,” Lamborn said.

Specifically, the NDIA report noted the existing pace of hypersonic test flights is around a dozen per year or less.

That is “inadequate to effectively move production forward,” the report states, recommending an expanded test schedule. “Some experts believe testing should occur on a weekly basis.”

In order to increase the number of test flights, the report authors recommended the Pentagon partner with industry to cut costs.

A steady pace of testing is crucial, Lamborn noted, because it helps to develop expertise even if—or perhaps because—systems fail.

“I believe it’s true that we learn just as much from failures as we do from successes, if not more; this is what ultimately accelerates progress,” he said.

Seminar panelist Mark Lewis, former ETI director and former director of defense research and engineering, said the cadence of “being able to test early and often, on the ground and in the air, get things flying, break them, figure out why they broke, fly them again,” is the key to hypersonics progress.

The Air Force recently said it will “close out” its AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) boost-glide hypersonics program. The pace of testing the ARRW amounted to only a couple of shots per year at most, a tempo that hypersonics experts have said is too slow to work out the bugs in nascent technology.

Beyond simply more test flights, the report also had other recommendations for ways to enhance testing, such as more specific tests on different parts of a hypersonic system, as opposed to testing the entire thing.

Limiting the number of “simultaneously tested variables reduces the complexity of the overall experiment and should contribute to rapid progress,” the paper noted.

The report also recommended that test articles, which traditionally fall into the sea after a test, be recoverable to save time and money.

Similarly, the report urged exploiting new digital technology to accelerate development and testing.

“Creating digital models of the entire hypersonic system allows engineers to increase and improve testing before building physical prototypes and increases the speed of finding interferences,” the ETI noted. “Expanded digital testing provides substantial opportunities for cost reduction and rapid advancement.”

Testing infrastructure also needs to be upgraded, experts said, both in industry and at academic institutions. These facilities include wind tunnels and other capabilities to replace an overall “aging infrastructure” for high-speed testing, the report said.

Experts in hypersonics surveyed for the paper said “the most pressing need is for additional arc jet facilities providing ground-based hyperthermal environments” to support testing of thermal protection materials and vehicle structures, according to the paper.

Building arc jet facilities at academic institutions will help students get hands-on experience in the field, it argued, and help mitigate a shortage of skilled workers and designers in the field, which ETI called out elsewhere in its study.

A byproduct benefit would be that students “could be placed under contract” so they could “receive clearances prior to graduation,” expediting their entry into the professional hypersonic workforce, ETI said.

Congress has a role to play in supporting the hypersonic test enterprise too, the report noted, urging lawmakers to direct the Pentagon to “maintain a continuously-updated assessment of the testing infrastructure needed to support” hypersonic research and development, and production of components and vehicles.

With the help of regular assessments from the Pentagon’s Test Resource Management Center, Congress should avoid funding programs that don’t have enough test infrastructure “planned or in place to support stated goals for development and production,” the report stated.

Lamborn, for his part, noted that Congress has “consistently added funding for expanded testing capabilities” over the last few years, including the National Hypersonics Initiative. And he said he is encouraged by the creation of the Multiservice Advanced Capability Hypersonic Test Bed (MACH TB)—a modular, experimental glide body being developed by Dynetics and Kratos that will provide DOD with a way to test hypersonic capabilities early in the process.

But “there’s still a lot of room for improvement” in hypersonic testing, Lamborn said, suggesting more such adds will be coming in the House version of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act.