WASHINGTON — A provision in the House Armed Services Committee’s draft policy bill could pave the way for a “National Hypersonic Initiative” aimed at addressing development and testing gaps and accelerating the Pentagon’s path to fielding the technology.
The U.S. Department of Defense is investing in a number of hypersonic research and development efforts across the military services, and lawmakers say they’re concerned about coordination as well as workforce and industrial base limitations, according to the committee’s proposed fiscal 2023 defense policy legislation.
In light of threats from China and Russia, the Pentagon has prioritized research and development of hypersonic systems, which can travel at or above Mach 5. The department is expected to spend $15 billion between 2015 and 2024 to advance the technology, and the White House’s National Security Council earlier this year added hypersonic capabilities to its list of critical technologies.
The bill language directs the department to explore options for creating a National Hypersonic Initiative that would guide collaboration among the services and agencies involved in development and testing activities. It would also focus on partnerships with with academia and the private sector on technology maturation and drive “innovative solutions” to accelerate production and increase manufacturing capacity.
The provision, if approved, would require a report on these options from the Secretary of Defense by Feb. 1, to include five-year budget estimates for efforts that require funding.
Lawmakers also want the department to conduct a review of its hypersonic programs and priorities in light of shortfalls in testing infrastructure. Industry executives told Pentagon leaders in February that a gap in testing resources, particularly the wind tunnels used to test flight characteristics for hypersonic vehicles, is one of the primary impediments to fielding those systems.
Mark Lewis, executive director of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technology Institute, said June 16 at the virtual Defense One Tech Summit that DoD’s test and evaluation infrastructure is “just not suited to moving quickly.”
“We have limited tunnels, we have limited flight-test opportunities and that’s impacting the rate at which we’re going,” said Lewis, who formerly served as the Pentagon’s acting deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. “If you look at our key tunnels right now, they tend to be oversubscribed, and that means programs are climbing all over each other to try to get access to those tunnels.”
Lewis added that if a program manages to schedule wind tunnel testing time and later experiences a setback that causes a delay or they want to conduct follow-up tests, they often must wait weeks or months to get back on the schedule. When programs can only conduct one or two tests at a time, he said, it affects their progress.
“Not surprisingly, we’re not having really high success rates,” he said. “Because if you don’t do something often enough, you just don’t get very good at it.”
The assessment lawmakers proposed should consider whether there are federal government or commercial test facilities DoD could use to help address capacity issues. As part of the report, the committee wants the Pentagon to consider what agreements would be needed to take advantage of that infrastructure.
Along with the review, lawmakers want the department to make a plan for how it will work with other federal agencies and industry to use their hypersonic testing facilities. That strategy is due six months after the fiscal 2023 defense policy bill is signed into law.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.