WASHINGTON – The Missile Defense Agency has selected Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon Missiles and Defense to develop the Glide Phase Interceptor (GPI) for regional hypersonic missile defense, the agency said on Nov. 19.
The agency signed additional transactional agreements for an “accelerated conceptual design” phase of the program, the statement said.
The interceptors are designed to counter a hypersonic weapon during the glide phase of flight, a challenge as the missiles can reach more than five times the speed of sound and maneuver, making it difficult to predict a missile’s trajectory.
The interceptors should fit into the current Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense destroyers of the US Navy. It is fired from its standard Vertical Launch System and integrated with the modified Baseline 9 Aegis Weapon System, which detects, tracks, controls and combats hypersonic threats, the statement said.
“We’re excited to have these contractors working with us to develop design concepts for the GPI,” said Rear Adm. Tom Druggan, MDA’s program director for sea-based weapons systems, in the statement. “Multiple awards allow us to conduct a risk reduction phase to explore industry concepts and maximize the benefits of a competitive environment in order to demonstrate the most effective and reliable Glide Phase Interceptor for regional hypersonic defense as soon as possible.”
The initial development phase “will focus on reducing technical risk, rapidly developing technology and demonstrating the ability to intercept a hypersonic threat,” according to a Nov. 19 Raytheon statement.
“Raytheon Technologies systems are the cornerstone of today’s ballistic missile defense. We are building on this knowledge to evolve the missile defense system for future threats, “Raytheon’s vice president of strategic missile defense Tay Fitzgerald said in the statement. “The speed, ability to withstand extreme heat, and maneuverability of the GPI will make it the first missile designed to combat this advanced threat.”
All three companies have experience developing hypersonic weapons.
Both Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are also developing competitive hypersonic scramjet-propelled missiles as part of the Air Force’s and DARPA’s Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) program.
And Lockheed is the leading systems integrator for the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike offensive hypersonic missile and the Army’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon. Northrop Grumman designed the engine for both weapons.
Lockheed is also developing the Air Force’s AGM-183A hypersonic rapid reaction weapon.
Northrop began a push to develop hypersonic missile capabilities in 2019 when the Pentagon made hypersonic capabilities a priority and that same year Lockheed Martin broke ground for a new facility in Alabama dedicated to the development, testing and manufacture of hypersonic weapons.
The Missile Defense Agency hit the pause button in the summer of 2020 in their efforts to bring a hypersonic defensive weapon online. But MDA has taken steps this year to move forward and has received feedback from the industry confirming that a sliding phase interceptor is something that can be done “and we shouldn’t be afraid to do it,” said Vice Admiral Jon Hill, MDA director Defense News earlier this year.
Just a year ago, MDA had a different answer on where hypersonic defense was going, focusing on solutions that are in the science and technology phase under development, Hill said.
But after stepping back and evaluating the U.S. ballistic missile defense capability, the agency realized it already had some resources in place to counter hypersonic weapons using sea-based means such as a Navy Carrier Strike Group with the ability to high-speed maneuver threats during the final stages of the flight.
The Aegis ship, which has ranged weapons, is able to see hypersonic weapons in the combat compartment because “just remember they’re not very tall,” Hill said. “That’s around 70 kilometers.”
Future efforts that are slated to go online already are systems like the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS), a satellite that will be placed in low-earth orbit to detect hypersonic missiles in flight, and the SPY-6 radar will do the Further increase the ability to track hypersonic threats, Hill added.
The agency decided it would make the most sense to focus on turning off hypersonic weapons during the glide phase of flight, where they are most vulnerable, Hill said.
MDA then assessed current and possible capabilities and concepts to detect, track and intercept a hypersonic weapon in this glide phase.
The agency also examined data from opponents’ systems. “Our opponents are flying these things all the time and we are collecting this data with the existing sensor architecture,” said Hill. “We pulled this data down and were able to run it through our high-fidelity system models.”
Using this data, MDA asked: “What material do we need about the seekers? What kind of diversion ability do we need? Are we using a fragmentation warhead or do we want to hit-to-kill while sliding because it’s a different fight? It’s a different environment, ”said Hill.
MDA found that it could use the existing booster stacks and focus on developing a front end for an interceptor, Hill said. What’s missing now is the gun, he noted.
Armed with the new strategy, the agency published a call to industry in April for white papers on solutions for their GPI.
While the MDA is still doing the risk mitigation for more exquisite features that are slated to go online later, Hill said, “From a regional perspective, we can now track this.”
The agency will initially focus on providing a capability to the Navy. “If this is successful,” said Hill, “we can move it to the land-based battery to protect other things from this type of hypersonic threat.”
Jen Judson is the land war reporter for Defense News. It has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club’s Best Analytical Coverage Award in 2014 and was named Best Young Defense Journalist in the Defense Media Awards in 2018.