Microelectronics Bump Hypersonics as DOD’s Top Tech Priority

The Pentagon has shifted its top priority from hypersonics to microelectronics, because the latter technology is part of almost all weapon systems, Mark Lewis, the head of defense research and engineering modernization, said April 22.

Speaking in an AFA live-stream event conducted by AFA Mitchell Institute dean retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Lewis called microelectronics “our most important investment, right now.” The U.S. is “in danger” of losing the edge in this critical field, he said.

Video: Mitchell Institute on YouTube

Past attempts to create “trusted foundries,” producing microchips that would be fully understood and not potentially compromised by hidden spy technology, “didn’t work out very well,” Lewis explained. There were a “variety of reasons” that was so, but “primarily, there isn’t a good business case” for such a capability. The Pentagon just doesn’t buy enough microelectronics, as a share of world consumption, to make it worthwhile, he said.

The Pentagon now wants to pursue “zero trust” components that, regardless of where they’re made, perform “exactly the way” they are expected to, Lewis said. The technology is vital because such components go into virtually everything, he said.  

Hypersonics have been bumped to No. 2, but only because efforts made over the last couple of years have put that initiative on a better trajectory, he said.

Air-breathing hypersonic missiles will likely arrive in the next few years, offering the Air Force a good option to arm aircraft in this decade, given their smaller size and larger loadout for certain missions, Lewis said.

Asked to explain what the Pentagon means when he and others talk about “affordable” hypersonics, Lewis declined to offer the unit costs the department has in mind, but said the calculus must also include a weapon’s effectiveness. A weapon that costs twice as much but is five times more effective is a bargain, Lewis said. “We don’t know what these things cost, yet,” but a Pentagon hypersonics “war room” is laboring to ensure the industrial base is prepared to build hypersonic systems in quantity, with the requisite materials, “affordably … making sure the cost equation is … beneficial.”

Leaders at Air Combat Command and Global Strike Command have told Air Force Magazine recently that they are pushing for the boost-glide ARRW, or Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, to be integrated on bombers first and later on smaller aircraft, but have offered less interest in air-breathing hypersonic missiles.

“The only reason I can come up with” why that is “is money,” Lewis said. Air-breathing technology in some ways is more advanced than boost-glide technology, and air-breathing hypersonic missiles can be made smaller and be carried in larger numbers on aircraft pylons and “in bomb bays,” he said. The fourth and last flight of the X-51 air-breathing hypersonic test vehicle was “boring,” Lewis said, in that it did everything it was supposed to do, “and it was designed 15 years ago,” Lewis noted.

“When it came time to pick a first tactical system, the one that was picked was the ARRW, for better or for worse,” Lewis said.