Welcome to the Era of Defense 2.0
Russia’s use of hypersonic weapons against Ukraine has sparked much conversation about hypersonic missiles, who has them, and how they’re used. China’s hypersonics programs are even more advanced.
What’s more, the fact that the U.S. is behind Russia and even more so China in hypersonics technology has extended beyond national defense circles and become a frequent topic in mainstream news coverage. This puts even more pressure on the government to act quickly.
Accordingly, the Department of Defense has directed more attention to hypersonics in past months, including a flurry of memos, meetings, and committees. Last February, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin called a special, unexpected meeting to talk about how the U.S. can accelerate hypersonics technology development. (The major prime contractors were there, but just one company from the startup/scaleup cohort.) The White House also added hypersonics to its list of 19 Critical and Emerging Technologies (CET).
There’s even a talk of an additional $25 billion funding directive from the White House using Defense Production Act Title III funds.
However, for the U.S. to maximize the return on its investment and make up for lost time, we must:
Develop a cohesive, comprehensive hypersonics program based on desired outcomes across all military branches.
Establish a mechanism for non-traditional defense contractors, aka “New Defense” companies, to bid on government contracts.
Make acquisition decisions faster so that New Defense companies can focus resources on programs that have a higher likelihood of being funded at scale.
Reframe our testing mindset to embrace early failures as an inherent part of progress and pursue new technologies that don’t require wind tunnels.
Give New Defense companies—not just government primes—a seat at the table in strategy meetings.
Do we really need to invest in hypersonics?
Global military powers are working on hypersonic vehicles that can be controlled and maneuvered mid-flight to hit precise targets and avoid detection. They are also developing technology to detect hypersonic missiles, even those that can change course mid-flight, and vehicles that can deflect them before they reach their targets. Commercial applications of hypersonic technology include cargo transportation and even travel.
Some believe that investing in hypersonic technology isn’t worth the high cost and uncertainty of whether the systems will work or have high strategic importance. On the surface, it’s reasonable to question why we would potentially spend billions of dollars to develop this technology when we already have more than enough weaponry to defend ourselves.
However, all technology eventually is disrupted and rendered obsolete. In the case of defense, wealthy, ambitious countries are investing significant resources on 10- to 20-year timelines with the singular goal of doing just that.
New Defense companies drive down costs
The unfortunate reality is that the best way to limit or eliminate the use of hypersonic weapons is to ensure that that the U.S. has comparable or better yet, superior technical capabilities as our adversaries.
At Ursa Major, we believe that the U.S. should always strive for technical primacy, especially when it comes to weapon detection, tracking, and deflection.
Additionally, New Defense companies have already proven that they can lower costs exponentially, creating the potential for much less expensive but still highly effective programs. For example, cost-per-kilogram of payload on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is about 25 times less expensive than it was for the Space Shuttle. The Ursa Major Hadley engine runs less than $1 million, compared to more than $8 billion in today’s dollars for the Apollo F-1 engine, or an average of $140+ million each for 24 engines to power NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).
A cohesive, operational plan
While we’ve seen high-level summaries of the U.S. hypersonics strategy, we have yet to see a comprehensive, detailed plan that can be put into action by industry. Additionally, the U.S. government’s acceleration of hypersonics development with its prime contractors has resulted in somewhat disparate programs across military branches.
Instead of a branch-specific approach, we can get further, faster, if we start with the end goal and work backwards, focusing on core technologies, then defining programs and allocating resources across the branches based on what makes the most sense.
There are already efforts underway to move in this direction. Mike White, the principal director of hypersonics in the Office of the Undersecretary Director of Defense Research and Engineering (OUSDR&E), for one, is committed to an integrated approach across departments and services to coordinate and optimize our hypersonic programs.
Expanded technology pool
In the late 1980s, after creating the most sophisticated and successful national defense in the world, the industry began massive consolidation. Between 75 and 100 companies congealed into five massive players. This created efficiencies in the face of shrinking budgets, and it was effective in maintaining existing programs. However, not surprisingly, innovation suffered.
Today, dozens of New Defense companies have plenty of innovation to sell to the U.S. government, but they’re in a chicken-and-egg situation that was left over from the consolidation. Most New Defense companies do not have the necessary clearance to bid for major government contracts, but to get such a clearance, they must have a government contract.
No policy change is simple, but it seems possible to separate the clearance process from contract bidding and create a way for companies that don’t yet have an existing government contract to apply for clearance. The clearance process should be just as rigorous—just separate from contract status.
Prioritize, fund, and reward creativity
Most everyone agrees that the limited industrial base has hampered innovation and that we need advancements to compete. The problem is that the system doesn’t allow procurement leaders to opt for new technology over something with 40 years of heritage without risking their careers. And even if it did, there’s not a clear way to integrate new technology into existing programs. In a few cases, we’ve seen “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it" mentality, but it’s coming from pragmatists, not luddites.
For example, Ursa Major has developed propulsion systems that use storable liquid fuel to enable launch from any platform at any time, but still allow for throttling and thrust vector control for precise steering mid-flight. Yet, due to the time and capital resources that it takes to get a new product qualified, an inordinate amount of focus is still on solid rockets, which are far less flexible and performant.
The key is to modernize the process in favor of advancements, not just maintenance, with programs and processes such as:
Employ Government Furnished Equipment (GFE) programs in which the government buys equipment outright from smaller companies and provides it to prime contractors for integration. This provides material, recordable revenue to smaller companies, which creates investor confidence, which in turn lets the company either use the revenue for operations or raise additional capital. Additionally, this approach shores up the industrial base by incentivizing technology development throughout the supply chain.
Create a Department of Defense loan program that bridges the Valley of Death for expensive programs (like hypersonics) for which there are minimal commercial applications. The U.S. Department of Energy already does this under its Title XVII Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program.
Expedite contract deadlines and shorten procurement cycles so that smaller companies have clear visibility into their revenue projections and can manage and grow their companies accordingly.
Consider the technological areas where the U.S. is likely on par or ahead of others—additive manufacturing (3D printing) and materials development. Advancements in both were driven by startups in entrepreneurs’ garages on shoestring budgets in just a few years, not over decades with multi-billion cost-plus contracts.
Embrace failure and new testing methods to move faster
When it comes to hypersonics testing, the U.S. needs to change its mindset. We focus too much on the optics of failed tests when we should be assuming that they are a natural and inevitable part of progress. Either test with impunity and don’t publicize it; or publicize it and ignore any criticism for failure. Concern about failed tests showing weakness is holding us back.
For every single hypersonics test in the U.S., Russia and especially China are conducting at minimum dozens of tests. They understand that failure is an inherent part of invention and as a result, their programs are much more advanced.
Another vital element of hypersonics testing in the U.S. is lack of capacity. One of the main topics of the February hypersonics meeting in D.C. was the small number of wind tunnels in the U.S. and the fact that they’re booked for years in advance. Building new ones would take too much time and money.
Meanwhile, several hundred miles west, two venture-funded startups, Ursa Major and Stratolaunch, have eliminated the need for wind tunnels altogether. Stratolaunch’s Talon-A testbed aircraft, equipped with the Ursa Major Hadley engine, unlocks the ability to test in real-life flight environments, rather than those simulated in a wind tunnel, with capacity for much higher volume and at a lower cost.
The way forward
American entrepreneurs have come back to defense technology in droves, bolstered by venture capital and public investors. The government primes have decades of operational expertise and infrastructure. Our defense leaders and policymakers have both the awareness of and appetite for innovation in national defense.
It won’t be easy or painless to create a cohesive, operational plan for U.S. hypersonics development and a viable way to acquire and integrate new technologies, but it’s possible.
It’s a new era and opportunity for American ingenuity and prosperity with domestically developed and manufactured hypersonics technology. Let's go.