From Global Security Newswire:
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is taking initial steps to launch a defense-industry competition for building a new missile capable of flying at hypersonic speeds and attacking targets anywhere around the world within 60 minutes of launch (see GSN, June 16).
The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center on May 31 solicited information from defense contractors on the technologies they might propose using for the service’s future Conventional Strike Missile.
The service “desires to understand the concepts, architectures and designs that will provide the capability to strike globally, precisely and rapidly” using non-nuclear weapons against high-priority, “time-sensitive targets,” the Air Force said in a formal “request for information” posted online.
Incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently described the Conventional Strike Missile and other potential “conventional prompt global strike” weapons as “valuable” alternatives to launching long-range, nuclear-armed ballistic missiles against urgent targets. They would be most useful “in situations where a fleeting, serious threat was located in a region not readily accessible by other means,” he told Congress.
Military brass have said a small number of such weapons are needed in rare instances when, for example, a North Korean ballistic missile is being prepared for launch or a terrorist is spotted at a faraway safe house, and no U.S. warships or aircraft are situated nearby.
A potentially key component of the new missile — Lockheed Martin’s Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2 — has experienced repeated developmental delays over the past few years, culminating in a flight demonstration failure in April 2010 (see G SN, Aug. 19, 2010).
Another test of the HTV-2 prototype — a dart-like glider that would launch aboard rocket boosters, zoom through the upper atmosphere and careen into target at speeds exceeding Mach 5 — is slated for August. That is to be followed up by a more complex flight test in fiscal 2012, according to defense sources.
For the past several years, Lockheed Martin has been retained on a sole-source contract for this research and development work. When it comes to producing a deployable missile, though, the Pentagon expects to open up the program to potential competitors.
Other big military contractors — to include Boeing and Northrop Grumman — are widely expected to propose alternative hypersonic technologies to compete against Lockheed Martin to build such a strike system.
The House Armed Services Committee last month issued a defense spending report that encourages the Pentagon to explore an array of solutions for the fast-attack mission. Lawmakers are seeking to reduce costs, decrease the risk of technological challenges, and offer a military capability sooner — before a top-level Pentagon “critical design review” is conducted next year, according to the fiscal 2012 defense authorization report.