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Rocket City contractor takes aim at hypersonic missile threat with interceptors

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A pair of Huntsville Department of Defense contractors are racing to develop the nation's first hypersonic missile interceptor as threats from around the globe rise.

The Pentagon says Huntsville plays a critical role in ensuring national security objectives are met in combating the potentially dire threat.

DOD awarded Raytheon Missiles and Defense and Lockheed Martin Missile Defense Agency (MDA) contracts worth more than $20 million each.

On Tuesday, WAAY 31 was invited inside Raytheon's facility for a behind-the-scenes look at the top secret work going on right now.

“We have to get something in the war fighters' hands as soon as possible," Patti Dare, Raytheon Huntsville site executive, told WAAY 31 during the exclusive interview. “The glide phase interceptor represents the new generation of counter hypersonic capabilities to defend against advanced missile threats.”

The modeling, development and testing are happening already as Huntsville's engineers come together to develop the hypersonic interceptors.

"This is our nation's home for MDA," Dare said. "We have a lot of technology already existing here today, and we have those innovative minds and the talent right here."

DOD and Congress making the glide phase interceptors a key priority. China already tested their nuclear capable hypersonic earlier this year. The regime’s missile circled the globe in low earth orbit before nearly reaching its intended target, according to media reports.

"These hypersonics will actually come back into the earth's atmosphere and they’ll go into a glide phase then they can maneuver all different directions to hit the target," Dare explained.

Raytheon said MDA will integrate the interceptor into the U.S. Navy’s ship-and-shore-based Aegis Weapon System.

While GPI is designed as a counter-hypersonic interceptor, the company is also designing hypersonic weapons and discusses the challenging aspects of that in this Q&A.

What are hypersonic weapons, and why is it hard to defend against them?

Hypersonic weapons are typically classified by their ability to achieve speeds greater than Mach 5 and remain in the atmosphere during flight.

They fall into two categories: boost glide and scramjet. In a boost glide system, a rocket accelerates its payload to high speeds. The payload then separates from the rocket and glides unpowered to its destination. The air-breathing scramjet relies on high-speed for power. Basically, the air around the missile is moving so fast, the missile takes it in and uses it for propulsion.

What makes hypersonic weapons challenging to defend against, apart from their sheer speed, is their ability to maneuver. They do not fly a predictable flight path, making them difficult to track versus traditional and conventional ballistic weapons that do.

How are hypersonic weapons different from intercontinental ballistic missiles?

Hypersonic weapons stay within the upper threshold of the atmosphere and do not have a predictable flight path because of their ability to maneuver, whereas ICBMs leave the atmosphere and fly a predictable trajectory. Since hypersonic systems hug the Earth’s atmosphere, they don’t necessarily need to travel as far as ballistic missiles do, so the time to target is less.

What makes hypersonic technologies hard to develop?

Heat management is one challenge — hypersonic weapons heat up as they accelerate through the atmosphere, so they require airframes that can withstand those blazing temperatures.

Another challenge is understanding the environment our systems will be exposed to during flight. We can use wind tunnels to emulate hypersonic flight conditions to a degree, but it’s unclear how well these ground tests accurately capture the shock, vibration and thermal stresses that happen in flight.

We gather vibration data in what are known as “freejet tests” to better understand the environment a scramjet creates for the rest of the system. But this data may not be as exact as we would like because the test article isn’t the same as the vehicle we would fly. Since we are flying these systems for the first time, there’s no historical knowledge to draw from to guide our designs.

To address these issues, we leverage data gathered from similar government efforts, implement best practices from other programs, and apply margin based on engineering judgment to ensure our designs are robust enough to handle uncertainties.

How can digital engineering help develop hypersonic technologies?

Digital engineering allows us to do iterations, real-time changes, incorporating new options and solutions exponentially faster. Building digital twins of actual weapons is much more agile than designing systems on paper. The interconnectivity among design tools eliminates unnecessary rework and offers greater confidence as well as accuracy of engineering predictions.

As we look to future development, we are using artificial intelligence/machine learning to help predict how the weapons fly and how to build systems to counter them. Our warfighters need industry to move faster, and modeling and simulation play a critical role in accelerating development by allowing us to validate test data.

Should we expect to see more international cooperation?

Absolutely. One company — and really, one country — can’t do the hypersonic mission alone because there aren’t enough sensors, test ranges and wind tunnels in the world to tackle this challenge.

Bottom line, this threat is not ours alone. The U.S. must partner with its closest allies to deliver these weapons at the scale our warfighters are expecting and on time — in the next five years.

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