The supply chain to build hypersonic weapons in large numbers—from the raw metals all the way to the factories—is not yet in place, mainly because the Pentagon’s on-again, off-again signals to industry about whether it’s serious about acquiring such missiles, according to experts and a new paper from the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute.
“We assess that the current hypersonics supply chains—including the manufacturing base, supply of critical materials, testing infrastructure, and workforce—are incapable of supporting deployment of hypersonic weapons at scale,” said Rebecca Wostenberg, a research fellow at NDIA. She led the effort to produce the new report.
Working groups with representatives from industry, government and academia consistently said there has been no “consistent demand signal from the US government for hypersonics,” Wostenberg said.
As a result, there’s a very small hypersonics manufacturing capability, with limited suppliers and limited production capability.
“Companies need to know they will receive a return on investment,” Wostenberg said. “The business case must exist for companies to invest in the necessary infrastructure and personnel.”
Charles Ormsby, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s chief of manufacturing and industrial technologies division, said in an NDIA panel discussion that the manufacturing base for hypersonics is scarcely more than a number of PhDs “doing it all by hand.”
Mark Lewis, former director of defense research and engineering and now head of Purdue University’s Applied Research Institute, said it’s critical the Pentagon not produce hypersonic systems “in onesies and twoesies” but in large numbers and at low cost, which will come from high-rate production.
Although the Pentagon has spent billions of dollars on hypersonics in recent years, the high cost of such weapons has not yet led to any high-rate production contracts. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said that while important, hypersonic weapons are better suited to China’s needs than those of the Air Force, and he has warned about trying to match China’s capability.
Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), in a keynote speech at the NDIA event, said hypersonics “is a technology that was born in America, but is being perfected by China and Russia. This is all because we made a bad decision 20 years ago to abandon what we had first started. Now we are witnessing the consequences from the sidelines.”
Lamborn, who heads the hypersonics caucus, said when work resumes on the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, it will reflect Congress’ intent to promote hypersonics capabilities, with funding to accelerate development and testing of hypersonic systems.
He also said Congress will push the Pentagon to not completely give up on programs like the AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, which the Air Force has said it is closing out.
“There’s discussion now over ARRW, specifically, which I would like to see continue in some form so that we can leverage the technology investments we have made,” Lamborn said, with other panelists agreeing. “Even if this program moves in another direction, we can harvest the gains.”
China dominates the mining and processing of many rare earth elements needed for hypersonic technologies, while necessary gases like neon are primarily supplied by Ukraine—so there is a “plethora of vulnerabilities” in the supply chain, Wostenberg noted.
Other elements key to hypersonics include carbon-carbon, a material used for heat shields, thermal protection, rocket components, and leading edges. But there are only three suppliers for this material in the U.S., Wostenberg said. Meanwhile, the number of suppliers for ammonium perchlorate, used in solid rocket propellant, is just two after Northrop Grumman recently established a production line.
Competition usually spurs innovation and reduces prices, but there’s very little of it in the hypersonics supply chain, Wostenberg noted.
The NDIA report offered several recommendations to address the issue:
- First, Congress and DOD need to work together “reinforce” the national defense stockpile of strategic minerals, which have dwindled since the end of the Cold War, thus increasing U.S. dependence on China.
- Second, the Pentagon needs to “send a clear demand signal” to private industry to “increase investment in additional carbon fiber suppliers.”
- Finally, the U.S. government should “set the regulatory environment to permit and incentivize more domestic rare earth elements mining and processing to lessen our reliance on China.”
The study detailed inadequacy in the manufacturing base and workforce as well. There are only two suppliers of solid rocket motors used in missile propulsion, and there are shortages in certain kinds of high-temperature bolts, thermal blankets, and other items. There’s no commercial market for these materials, so the “industrial base remains small and the market fragile due to inconsistent demand.”
The lack of demand has also meant that lead times have grown “exponentially” for these and other hypersonic elements.
The testing infrastructure is also a shadow of what it needs to be to rapidly advance hypersonic technologies and warrants a whole study of its own, Wostenberg said. Hypersonics programs have to compete for test range time against other high-priority programs like missile defense and nuclear deterrence, but the ranges are few, their technology is old, and lack modern data acquisition tools. Government and industry must work together to fund improvements, Wosternberg said.
Meanwhile, all the problems the aerospace industry has with finding and retaining workers goes double for hypersonics, Wostenberg said. The industry is seeing high turnover, and “the current hypersonics-specific talent is also unbalanced and misaligned to current needs.” Industry, government, and academia need to work together to address these shortages, she said.
But overall, “the most important immediate step that the Department of Defense can take to strengthen hypersonics supply chains is to send a consistent demand signal to industry by treating certain hypersonic programs as traditional programs of record, and utilizing multi-year contracts to send an extended demand signal,” Wostenberg said.
In particular, the office of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering “should continue to pursue an air-breathing hypersonic vehicle system as a key element of its development plan,” she said.
The report also urges the Pentagon and industry to tighten up its vulnerabilities to cyber attack, counterintelligence, and intellectual property theft. There have been cyber attacks on mining operations and lower levels of the supply chain in recent years, against companies that lack the wherewithal to defend against them.
“Recent reports also indicate that China has recruited several former scientist from the Los Alamos National Lab to work on their hypersonics programs,” Wostenberg said. The FBI should step in and assess all levels of security pertaining to hypersonics, but panel participants said it must be done thoughtfully, so as not to classify too much basic research and inhibit discussions about it. Panelists also insisted that the U.S. must freely share and collaborate with partner countries like Australia and Norway, who have leading capabilities in hypersonics.