Pentagon acquisition chief optimistic — but not certain — that hypersonics will transition into production soon

Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment William LaPlante holds a press brief at the Pentagon, May 6, 2022. (DoD Photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class James K. Lee)

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The Pentagon’s top weapons buyer is optimistic that U.S. hypersonic weapons will finally move into large-scale production in the coming years, but said “the proof will be in the pudding.”

The tech has long been confined to research and development, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment William LaPlante noted at the annual Defense News Conference on Wednesday.

“Keep in mind hypersonics has been a weapon of the future for 60 years,” he said when asked by FedScoop if industry will be able to produce the air vehicles and other components in large quantities once the ongoing R&D efforts are ready to come to fruition.

Aside from some prototyping efforts, “we’ve never, ever produced and manufactured hypersonics ever in this country. It’s been entirely S&T,” he said. “So, the real question is … are these companies [that are working on the technology] ready to no-kidding go into production at some degree of rate? And I ask this question, Jon, all the time, and I get reassurance that they’re ready. But the proof will be in the pudding,” he told this FedScoop reporter.

“I wish I could tell you … that absolutely they’re ready for this. They say they are [and] they will. But if you all know anything about hypersonics … you have very difficult materials issues, thermal management issues, aerodynamics issues,” he added.

The cutting-edge weapons are expected to travel faster than Mach 5 and be highly maneuverable against enemy air defenses. The Army, Navy and Air Force are working on them, and the DOD hopes to begin fielding these types of platforms by the end of 2023

LaPlante described the technology as game-changing, noting that adversaries China and Russia are already manufacturing and deploying some of their hypersonic systems.

“If we get — when we get hypersonics into production, we should all pop champagne corks. That will be remarkable because we have never had them in production. Hypersonics has been in the S&T community in this country forever. I love S&T, folks. I am an S&T person. But at some point, you got to let the children out,” he said, urging people to focus less on “shiny” hypersonic S&T projects and focus more on supporting manufacturing.

Despite the challenges involved, LaPlante said he’s hopeful that the weapons will be ready for prime time in the not-too-distant future.

“I am actually optimistic. And without getting into specifics … when I visited some of the companies that will do it — I know people there — they know the challenges that they have,” he said. “But … knock on wood, knock on carpet, they’re about one to two years away from production for some of these hypersonic glide vehicles. And if we get there, hallelujah. That’ll be a landmark” moment.

During the same conference, Undersecretary of the Army Gabe Camarillo said he doesn’t expect any delays in the Army’s plans to equip its first unit with the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon by the end of fiscal 2023.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said his department is interested in boost glide hypersonic weapons as well as scramjet variants. However, he said the Pentagon shouldn’t “blindly” embrace the platforms without considering their cost effectiveness and their return on investment when it comes to attacking various types of targets.

“That’s something we’re still working our way through, but we are definitely interested in both concepts,” Kendall said at the conference.

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Frank Kendall, Gabe Camarillo, hypersonics, William LaPlante Jr.
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