Hypersonics, Directed Energy …. and Affordability
MON US Correspondent Marty Kauchak reports from a media roundtable briefing held at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium (SMD 2019) in Huntsville, AL on 7 August. Dr Michael D Griffin, the US Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering at the Department of Defense (DoD), briefed reporters on a variety of topics of interest to the ballistic missile defence (BMD) community.
Dr. Griffin is DoD’s Chief Technology Officer. He is responsible for research, development and prototyping activities across the department and is mandated with ensuring its technological superiority. He oversees the activities of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the Strategic Capabilities Office, Defense Innovation Unit, the DoD Laboratory enterprise, and the Under Secretariat staff focused on developing advanced technology and capability for the US military.
Hypersonic weapons are one of the threats keeping US intelligence leaders and the Combatant Commanders on edge – and with good reasons. These weapons – missiles able to reach Mach 5 and above – have flight envelopes different from those of traditional ballistic missiles, which the current US BMD enterprise was built to defeat. It should be of no surprise, therefore, that this Pentagon official initially noted that it is “very clear, in the realm of hypersonics, we are playing catch-up ball, especially to the Chinese.”
Dr Griffin justified his assessment by calling attention to content in the public domain, particularly regarding the Chinese DF-21 medium-range and DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles, the latter of which, he noted, “can range [reach] Guam and beyond from the Chinese coast.” While he noted the US does not possess equivalent missiles, he asserted that the nation not only needs to match, “but overmatch, especially the Chinese, both with our offensive capability and to defend against what they are doing.” And while he noted the US is responding, albeit late in the game, he is placing his bets on the nation’s innovation and resolve against this threat.
On a related topic, funding for hypersonic programmes, he noted the support Congress has given the Pentagon during the last year for hypersonics. “I am not asking this year for more money. We have a number of robust programmes in the area of hypersonics – my goal is to see them through,” he told reporters.
Dr Griffin also likened the new Space Development Agency “to the orchestra conductor for the proliferated space architecture that we (the whole of DoD) are advocating.” This is significant, as the Pentagon is shifting its space architecture paradigm to one in which a proliferated low-Earth orbit satellite constellation comprised of hundreds of small satellites forms one ‘layer,’ capable of detecting and tracking hypersonics and other threats. This tracking layer will be blended with other layers, consisting of other satellites with different missions, for instance, tracking space objects and supporting communications.
The Undersecretary then discussed directed energy, stating “we’ve refocused our programme.” To that end, he reminded his audience, “we want to emphasize beam control, which is an optics and atmosphere kind of problem. We want to get more detailed assessments of lethality. We don’t want to build systems until we know what the lethality requirements are, as these are not as developed as we would like.” Acknowledging that DoD has used directed energy to bring down any number of experimental targets, he went on to state that the department needs to more vigorously go after the actual warfighting lethality requirements pertinent to a variety of targets, surfaces and flight regimes. And finally, there is laser scaling, which would allow the services to move beyond the 10s of kilowatt range to the 100s of kilowatts. While the latter realm is not yet said to constitute a missile defence tool, “you are not going to get to the missile defence level until you get through the 100s of kilowatts,” he observed.
Dr Griffin closed the event by observing that, while the US aerospace and defence industry is moving in the “right direction” to field hypersonic weapons and related capabilities, more effort is required in different parts of the life cycle – from technical challenges all the way through to the manufacturing process. For example, while hypersonic weapons need to be high-speed, they will require a higher degree of thermal protection than has been required in the past. “We know how to produce those one and two at a time,” he quite matter-of-factly said, continuing, “so what that means is we understand the physics, which is great. But we need to understand the industrial engineering of that – to produce those by the dozens and that is an industry problem. I am not certain how much help the government can be.” And finally, he struck a familiar note, by noting these new weapons need to also be affordable.