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Pentagon picks primes for hypersonic defence program

written by Adam Thorn | June 28, 2022

The Pentagon has selected Northrop Grumman and Raytheon to further develop the US military’s hypersonic missile defence program.

The pair are currently working on a Glide Phase Interceptor (GPI) system, which is designed to destroy threats when they are in their ‘glide’ phase.

Australian Aviation’s new digital In-Focus edition examines hypersonic technology. To find out more and subscribe, click here.

While hypersonic tech — defined as flying at least five times the speed of sound — is nothing new, countries are currently in an arms race to develop the next generation of missiles that are so manoeuvrable in mid-air they can’t be intercepted or detected.

There are currently two major ways this could be achieved.

The first, known as a hypersonic cruise missile, would see a rocket blast to Mach 5 before using an air-breathing engine, or scramjet, to maintain its momentum. Lockheed Martin has already conducted successful test flights of its own Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, known as HAWC, that went beyond Mach 5 and hit a peak altitude of 65,000 feet.

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The second, known as a glide vehicle, sees a rocket blast into the sky before releasing a separate hypersonic missile that has built up enough velocity to travel under its own speed. The two-step system means it can cruise along in the upper atmosphere with enough atmosphere to maintain lift but without too much to create drag.

Examples include Russia’s Avangard, the US Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike system and China’s aforementioned Dongfeng-17.

While the US hopes to have the technology mastered by the end of next year, work on detection systems is a long way behind.

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“The awards are an important step toward increasing the capacity of our missile defense system and providing a new capability to the warfighter,” Vice Admiral Jon Hill, director of the US’ Missile Defense Agency, said.

“GPI will play an important role in our regional hypersonic defence, and our acquisition strategy is ensuring that the department maximises innovation to keep pace with rapidly advancing threats.”

Rich Straka, vice president, launch vehicles, Northrop Grumman, welcomed the opportunity to progress hypersonic missile defence capability development.

“GPI will play a central role in ensuring the United States maintains the most reliable and advanced missile defence systems in the world that are capable of outpacing and defeating evolving missile threats,” he said.

Northrop Grumman is expected to leverage its agile processes, artificial intelligence, and model-based systems engineering to offer an “affordable, low-risk solution”.

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