Four Challenges to Hypersonics

Lockheed Martin IQ
Rick Ambrose, Executive Vice President, Space
Scott Greene, Executive Vice President, Missiles and Fire Control

The field of hypersonics is a hot topic for the U.S. Department of Defense and the aerospace and defense industry. Yet it’s not exactly a new field. Lockheed Martin has been investing in developing this game-changing technology for more than 30 years. So why is it important now?

The term “hypersonic” refers to an area of flight where a vehicle travels at Mach 5 or higher – which is five times faster than the speed of sound. Using hypersonic systems allows for more speed and maneuverability when it matters most.

Development of hypersonics is advancing across the globe, and the U.S. Department of Defense has made hypersonics a key mission priority for the United States. Current program pursuits with the U.S. Armed Forces give us an opportunity to move fast, while building on proven capabilities to quickly onboard new technology to meet new missions.

Hypersonics is a field where we are primed to go fast, so to speak. We’re already investing in new facilities and expanding our workforce. On Sept. 16, we commissioned one such new facility in Courtland, Alabama, where we’ll conduct focused work on four hypersonics programs including the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike Weapon, Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon and the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon.

This technology provides capabilities important in this current threat environment, but also comes with unique technical challenges. Here are four big challenges our engineers have to take into account:

  1. Heat – At hypersonic speeds, friction and air resistance create an incredible amount of heat, which needs to be managed through tough but lightweight heat shields and thermal protection systems. Instruments, like sensors and electronics, must also be equipped and protected to stand up to these extreme conditions.

  2. Advanced Materials – Managing extreme heat and speed requires inventing and deploying new solutions, advanced materials and composites that can withstand extreme environments.

  3. Maneuverability – Hypersonic systems are designed to operate in contested environments and must be capable of overcoming a wide range of defenses. At hypersonic speeds, maneuverability is a big challenge that demands extensive calculation and development.

  4. Communication – Basic operations, like communications, become significant during hypersonic flight. Personnel need continuous connectivity to operators and decision-makers through global communications and sensor systems that can operate within these high-speed environments.

Lockheed Martin has a proven heritage in fields like advanced thermal materials, guidance and control systems, long-range platforms and re-entry vehicles. There’s no better place for us to bring together our people and expertise in space, aeronautics and mission systems to develop next-level solutions for our nation.

What’s so exciting about this work is that our ability to blend proven technology with new, cutting edge research and development in areas such as propulsion, thermal management and materials science is allowing us to get capability into the hands of our customer quickly, and will give us a platform to move ahead of global competitors in this vital mission area.

Takeaways from Rick Ambrose, Executive Vice President of Lockheed Martin Space:

Hypersonics requires deft engineering and problem solving to a new degree. Collaboration is key to this pursuit in three main areas:

  1. Joint acquisition – Many of the hypersonic programs we’re working on are joint efforts for multiple military customers. This cross-connection is a force multiplier as we develop increasingly complex hypersonic systems.
  2. Internal teaming – With more than 100 years of legacy under our belt, we have vast engineering experience. We deliver the strongest results when we leverage the experience of our internal teammates and industry partners.
  3. Multi-domain operations – At the end of the day, everything we do is about supporting our customers by creating a stronger global security network. Systems like hypersonics communicate with other assets to create a synchronized picture across air, space, sea, land, cyber and electromagnetic domains. It’s all about the big picture.

Takeaways from Scott Greene, Executive Vice President of Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control: The demand to build hypersonic strike and defense systems are growing at an increasingly rapid pace. This requires industry to think ten steps ahead and put our best and brightest in front to solve our numerous engineering challenges.

  1. Timely execution – Hypersonic programs are a top priority for Lockheed Martin at every level. Lockheed Martin is leveraging the combined strength of the entire enterprise in both technical and program management to deliver results and meet the government’s objectives.
  2. Partnering with academia – Strategic partnerships with universities will address not only the research aspect, but also talent acquisition. We are partnering with a consortium of universities to leverage new talent, utilize state-of-the-art testing facilities and build collaborative relationships.
  3. Talent acquisition – It is imperative that industry, government and academia work together to solve this hypersonics challenge and ensure the United States remains a leader in technology, advanced manufacturing and global security. This means that we need to be preparing our workforce now for roles of the future, reimagining the aerospace and defense workforce pipeline and inspiring young minds through STEM initiatives.

About the Authors

Scott Greene
Executive Vice President, Missiles and Fire Control

Scott Greene is executive vice president of Missiles and Fire Control (MFC) for Lockheed Martin Corporation. MFC is a $10 billion enterprise that employs 19,000 people. MFC develops, manufactures and supports advanced combat, missile, rocket and energy systems and provides technical services and logistics support for military customers that include the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Special Operations Forces and allied nations. Commercial programs include products and services for the global civil nuclear power industry, microgrids, renewable energy solutions and energy storage.

Richard F. Ambrose
Executive Vice President, Space

Rick Ambrose is executive vice president of Space for Lockheed Martin Corporation. Space is a more than $10 billion enterprise that employs approximately 20,000 people and provides advanced technology systems for national security, civil and commercial customers.