HACM contract winners see opportunities for producing less expensive hypersonics at higher rates

Concept art for the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM). (Image courtesy of Raytheon Technologies)

Raytheon Technologies and its industry partner Northrop Grumman have been tapped to develop a new air-launched Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM) for the Air Force. Officials from the companies say the new scramjet-powered system could potentially be less costly per-round than tactical boost glide systems — a key factor in determining how many hypersonic missiles the Pentagon will be able to buy.

At DefenseScoop’s DefenseTalks conference on Sept. 15, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment William LaPlante said hypersonics will be “very, very, very powerful” weapons. However, the quantities that the DOD decides to buy will depend on the cost per round and the types of hypersonic weapons — namely, cruise missiles or boost-glide systems — that the Pentagon chooses to procure.

“What the hypersonics community is trying to do is shoot towards an all-up round cost that’s reasonable,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to buy very many of them if they’re $80 million all-up rounds. So they’re shooting for somewhere even as low as 10 or 5 million [dollars] a round. And that really is going to drive the numbers.”

By comparison, the non-hypersonic Tomahawk cruise missile costs about $2 million per round, and the SM-6 costs just under $5 million per round, according to Pentagon budget documents.

On Thursday, the Defense Department awarded Raytheon a $985 million contract to develop the HACM. Hypersonic cruise missiles use air-breathing scramjet engines for propulsion, whereas the hypersonic boost-glide systems that the Pentagon is also working on use rocket boosters to reach extremely high speeds.

Raytheon and Northrop Grumman have worked on both types of technologies.

“When you kind of look at those systems at a high level, just comparing, like you said, the boost glide to the air breathers, you know the speeds at which the boost glides fly are faster than what the air-breathing systems fly in. So you got a difference in terms of environments that you’re designing to,” John Otto, senior director for advanced hypersonic weapons at Raytheon Missiles and Defense, told DefenseScoop during a media briefing on Friday.

“The environment that you’re designing to in a boost-glide system, because of its speed, is going to be significantly greater than what you’re going to see with the air-breathing system. So, that allows you to go with more readily available or less exotic types of materials and design solutions on the air-breathing side … so that’s going to allow you to develop these systems quicker and more affordably,” he said.

Hypersonic weapons are expected to travel faster than Mach 5, be highly maneuverable against enemy air defenses, and be able to attack time-sensitive targets.

Otto said boost-glide and cruise missile variants each have unique or “niche” use cases.

However, “there’s certain advantages there in terms of cost, manufacturability and, you know, ability to deliver I think at [higher production] rates on the air-breathing side than on the boost-glide side,” he said.

Another advantage of scramjet-powered systems is that they generally have a smaller form factor, which increases the types of platforms that can carry the weapons and how many they can carry, Otto noted.

Driving down the cost per round is especially important for HACM if the Defense Department wants to field them in larger numbers than some of the boost-glide systems that are expected to come online in the next few years.

The Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile is expected to have a small enough form factor that they can be deployed from fighter aircraft.

“HACM will provide our commanders with tactical flexibility to employ fighters to hold high-value, time-sensitive targets at risk while maintaining bombers for other strategic targets,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr. said in a statement Thursday.

Northrop Grumman officials say their scramjet propulsion technology will underpin the weapon.

However, developing that advanced tech “is really only half the problem,” Chris Gettinger, the company’s director of advanced propulsion systems and controls, told reporters during the briefing on Friday. Manufacturing capacity and supply chains will also be important.

“The way we develop and build a prototype missile … or a missile propulsion system, in our case, is not the way we do it in production, because this is a new class of weapon propulsion systems,” he said when asked about the cost of developing and manufacturing the HACM. “For us … there is additional funding required up front to develop, you know, some of the capabilities and capacities we’re putting in place. Once those are in place, we see a pretty clear path to … hitting the affordability goals that we’ve set for ourselves.”

During the briefing, industry officials declined to say explicitly whether a $5 million to $10 million all-up round cost target would be feasible for the HACM.

“In terms of where we’re going to get at in price point and things of that nature, you know, that’s — there’s a lot of factors that go into what your ultimate price point in your system is. And that gets into things like requirements, how many you’re going to deliver, you know, and so forth. And so, you know, what we’re committed to doing is working with the Air Force and the warfighter to try to deliver the capabilities they want at a price that’s affordable to them, so they can procure the number of systems that they want,” Otto said.

“In terms of where the price on the system is going to go … and discussions like that on the budget are really — those are more Air Force questions to answer. But what we’re really focused on is, you know, again, leveraging our capability, our manufacturing capability and system design, our capability to integrate key technologies to come up with a system that can be manufactured at rate quickly and affordably,” he added.

However, early this week, Chris Haynes, Northrop Grumman’s senior director for strategy and business development, said he thinks a $5 million to $10 million cost target is feasible for systems such as the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile.

“For me, I see the price point being very achievable for things like [the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon] and things like HACM. And those are specifically important because those are the weapons we’ll start seeing fielded in higher quantities as we move forward. Specifically, HACM. You look at the form factor of that kind of weapon, the versatility in terms of the number of different platforms from fighters to bombers that you can play on — [we] really need to drive the affordability down on those kinds of weapons,” Haynes said during a media briefing on Monday at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber conference.

The Air Force aims to deliver a HACM capability with “operational utility” by fiscal 2027.

The Pentagon is currently developing its next Program Objective Memorandum, or POM 24, which is expected to include more details about plans to procure various hypersonic systems.

“There is a wedge in the budget to do hypersonics and do it with production. We’re leaving open exactly the specific path that we’re going to use, but it will be funded. Absolutely,” LaPlante said at DefenseTalks.