Developing Hypersonic Missile Systems: A New Capability Center Brings High-Speed Weapons to the Forefront
To usher in a new era of military readiness, Northrop Grumman broke ground on a Hypersonics Capability Center at its Elkton, Maryland, facility.
Hypersonic missile systems deliver higher speeds, optimal performance and the ability to operate with as much distance as possible between warfighters and the threats they face. With the center’s capabilities, Northrop Grumman will provide full life-cycle production for such weapons, from design and development to production and integration.
“This gives us the opportunity to address hypersonics holistically, as an integrated problem set,” said Chris Haynes, director of strategy and business development for missile products. “We’re looking not just at the design elements but also at the manufacturing. Our goal is to produce, at scale, affordable hypersonic weapons that will deliver the capabilities the military requires.”
The Hypersonic Challenge
Moving at speeds over Mach 5, hypersonic missile systems present a unique set of engineering challenges.
“When you operate at those speeds for a long duration in the atmosphere, you encounter all kinds of thermal problems, as well as challenges around maneuverability and survivability,” Haynes said. In the simplest terms, a weapon moving that fast will get very hot, and that heat generates intense thermally induced structural stresses.
Northrop Grumman’s deep technical expertise and its years-long investment in hypersonics has enabled the company to address many of these technical hurdles. The Hypersonics Capability Center now promises to help put that expertise into action.
“We want to unlock the full capability of hypersonics. We can’t just create an initial capability and stop. We have to build on those successes and evolve next-generation capabilities that continue to define what is possible in hypersonics,” Haynes said.
Broad Expertise Is Key
According to Chris Gettinger, director of advanced propulsion and systems, it takes a broad base of expertise to address a multifaceted problem like hypersonic missile systems.
“With such an integrated problem, you really have to make sure you’ve got several key disciplines working together,” he said. “You need a mix of folks: thermal experts, structural design engineers, analysts and aerodynamicists.”
While hypersonics have been in the development phase, manufacturing elements have been spread across the country. The Hypersonics Capability Center provides a venue for consolidating many of the key manufacturing elements in a single location.
The ability to consolidate these elements of production for hypersonic propulsion systems is key to the capability center’s vision. By adding a large-scale production capability, the center promises to deliver a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
“It’s not just about expanding upon existing capabilities. It’s about building a whole new capability,” Gettinger said.
A Proven Track Record
Northrop Grumman is uniquely positioned to bring to fruition the promise of hypersonics.
“We are a solid rocket motor provider and have the expertise and capabilities in air-breathing propulsion as well,” Haynes said. “As a prime, we have a proven track record of manufacturing full systems.”
The Hypersonics Capability Center will build upon that strong base of experience. “Now, we have the ability to pull together all of that knowledge in one location, with one team working toward a single purpose,” Haynes said. “That puts us in a unique position to offer the best possible solutions to the military, in a way that is both timely and affordable.”
Right out of the gate, experts at the capability center will be looking to support our military in developing a hypersonic cruise missile. And the vision goes even broader than that.
“The capability we’re putting into our facility here really opens the door to all the emerging programs out there,” Haynes said.
“If you look across all services, they’ve got a lot of common objectives: to achieve time-critical targeting, with longer standoff,” he said. “We took a very holistic look at the investments we were making to say, ‘How can we create a capability that allows us to enable those future needs and also enable us to drive value into existing systems?’ The Hypersonics Capability Center answers that call.”
How a Digital Factory Is Key to Success
In pursuit of hypersonics, Northrop Grumman is deploying the latest digital tools and capabilities — a strategy that promises to speed results while keeping costs in check. Its “digital factory” takes a holistic approach to digitally integrating all aspects of design, development, manufacturing and testing of future products.
“At the Hypersonics Capability Center, we are combining the latest digital design tools and physical manufacturing techniques to reduce the overall time to market and meet the needs of our nation’s warfighter as quickly as possible,” said Eddie Jones, director of operations for the propulsion systems and controls operating unit.
A digital factory provides long-term production benefits, such as optimized manufacturing process design and workspaces, state-of-the-art automation and overall improvements to product quality.
Through the digital factory, “the capability center is shortening the learning curve of optimization,” Jones said. “Our team can model the entire manufacturing process in a virtual environment to optimize floor layouts, machining paths, tooling design, technician interfaces and so on, prior to the completion of the physical factory.”
This digital approach promises to speed delivery of hypersonic capabilities — a key Pentagon goal. “This process will not only shorten our delivery times but also greatly burn down risk of schedule and cost growth during the development phases of the program,” Jones said.
A Changing Battlespace
As the hypersonic premise comes to fruition, it promises to change the very nature of warfighting. Such fast-moving weapons could have devastating effects on the battlefield while simultaneously helping to keep American troops out of harm’s way.
From a strategic point of view, adversaries typically mount air defenses and space defenses. By moving fast in the atmosphere, hypersonics could potentially evade those mainstay defenses, allowing American troops to operate effectively from a distance.
“Hypersonic systems are able to travel on extended flights within the upper atmosphere — 80,000 to 200,000 feet — at speeds near and above Mach 5, and they’re able to maneuver in ways that are hard for defenders to predict,” says Mike White, principal director for hypersonics at the office of the Secretary of Defense (research and engineering). “The high altitude range creates a gap between air defenses and ballistic missile defenses.”
All this could come to fruition in the relatively near term. The Northrop Grumman team anticipates rolling out a solid rocket motor propulsion capability in 2022, with hypersonic capacity available in late 2023.
“The investment that’s being made will enable us to not only develop these modernized capabilities but also deliver these things in a production environment,” Haynes said.