Raytheon Missiles Defense was selected by the Missile Defense Agency as one of the companies to develop and test the Glide Phase Interceptor, the first system specifically designed to defeat hypersonic threats. (Raytheon graphic)

WASHINGTON: The Missile Defense Agency plans this year to narrow down the competitors in its effort to develop a new interceptor to shoot down hypersonic missiles, says Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill.

“We have a Other Transaction Authority agreement in place with three separate companies that are competing now. We are evaluating those concepts for down-select later this year, so we will go from the current three down to the two, perhaps the one, depending on the maturity of those those different proposals,” he told the House Armed Services’ strategic forces subcommittee today.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in recent months have become increasingly agitated that advancements being made by Russia and China in the arena of hypersonic weapons research are leaving the Pentagon in the dust. Those worries have only been heightened by Russia’s use of such missiles in Ukraine. 

The US must “reckon with the Chinese and Russian hypersonic threats that are no longer emerging and have rapidly arrived,” Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said during today’s hearing. “We need to develop our next generation of technologies to defeat these systems.”

MDA in November made awards to Raytheon Technologies, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin to compete for development of a new Glide Phase Interceptor (GPI).

Raytheon Missiles and Defense was awarded $20.97 million; Lockheed Martin, $20.94 million; and Northrop Grumman, $18.95 million, according to MDA’s contract announcement. Concept designs for prototypes from each vendor are due by September.

The GPI is designed to knock down high-speed, surface-skimming hypersonic missiles that can maneuver to stay under current missile tracking radar early in their flight. Being designed necessarily as a hypersonic weapon in order to pace its targets, GPI will be fired, at least initially, from a ship-based Aegis Weapon System.

The critical issues include assessing how much “de-risking” is required in the proposals on the table, Hill told lawmakers.

“We don’t we don’t have a good sense yet, as we’re going through that work now and those evaluations,” he said. But if “major risk areas that we want to help industry overcome” are discovered, he added, MDA intends to tie investments to doing so.

In all MDA requested $225 million for hypersonic defenses, including GPI, in its fiscal 2023 budget request. The agency further has sent Congress an unfunded priorities list that includes some $318 million for hypersonic efforts, Roll Call reported last month.

Hill explained that some of those extra dollars would be used precisely for working down technology risks in the GPI program.

“The items that you see listed there specifically to the Glide-Phase Interceptor is to risk reduce key technology areas — that’s a new regime up in the glide phase — and so seeker work, propulsion work, the old thermal protection system issues that will help to de-risk the program,” he said.

Designing new, robust thermal protection capabilities for hypersonic missiles remains a critical obstacle for Pentagon developers, because as speeds mount above above Mach 5, the friction from the atmosphere causes the missile bodies to heat and their structure, as well as sensitive subsystems like avionics, to degrade.

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