HAC Funds USAF Hypersonic Ask, With Caveats

The House Appropriations Committee expressed a lot of gripes about how the Air Force is handling the rapid development and fielding of hypersonic technology and weapons in its fiscal 2020 budget language. The committee is directing the service to provide new, more frequent reports on hypersonic systems progress, particularly with the Arrow (ARRW) and Hacksaw (HCSW) projects, and ordering the service to close funding gaps on the programs. It also mandated new reports from the Pentagon leadership on all-service hypersonic efforts, to avoid duplication of effort.

The HAC pointed out that while there’s a lot of money requested for the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) and Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW), it’s “disappointed” the Air Force hasn’t fully funded both programs through development to initial fielding, even though there’s been an independent cost estimate available for more than a year.

While the HAC provided the full $576 million requested for the ARRW and HCSW, it’s “concerned by the continuing budget gap for both efforts, particularly the HCSW,” which would experience a “significant funding shortfall” in fiscal 2020. Specifically, USAF didn’t ask for any money to continue HCSW into 2021 and thereafter “despite the Air Force goal of reaching an early operational capability within fiscal year 2022.”

Both programs are being managed under the Section 804 authorities Congress granted to streamline rapid prototyping projects, and the committee found that USAF has had “ample time … to fully fund both efforts within its budget plans.” The HAC wants this “budgetary disconnect” closed and worries that USAF’s lack of attention in this area “communicates uncertainty about [its] intention to see both efforts through to completion.”

Consequently, the HAC wants new and more frequent reports, both from the Pentagon research and engineering leadership and the Air Force, on progress in hypersonics. It’s worried that because of the rapid pace of efforts in all the services, there could be “stovepiped, proprietary systems that duplicate capabilities and increase cost.”

The committee directed Mike Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering and the Pentagon’s hypersonics czar, to create an “integrated science and technology roadmap” for hypersonics, and provided $85 million for the project. It also directed Griffin to coordinate hypersonics efforts across the services, and make quarterly reports on progress and the “short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals” for hypersonics within the DOD. The first of these would be due 90 days after the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act becomes law. To be included is an explanation of how the DOD will coordinate with academia and industry to ensure there’s an adequate manufacturing base and workforce ready to supply the unique needs of hypersonic technology, and the “associated investment” required to bring plans to fruition.

From the Air Force, the HAC mandated a new plan that fully funds the hypersonics program, and explains how it will transition from research to production and fielding. This plan, too, is due 90 days after the NDAA becomes law and is to include estimates for how much it will cost to transition to operational capability, including a “notional schedule and cost estimate for the first five production lots,” as well as an assessment of “manufacturing readiness levels” and what it will cost to support initial production.

Regarding manufacturing capability, the HAC specifically called out thermal protection systems as one requiring close attention, and urged the Secretary of the Air Force to “continue the development and transition of this technology to support” production of future hypersonic systems.

Finally, USAF is to provide a comparative analysis of why it makes sense to pursue two programs, explaining the benefits of “fielding multiple, air-launched hypersonic weapons of comparable operational range versus downselecting to a single-type of weapon.” The SECAF was also urged to keep funding the development of reusable hypersonic systems, and encouraged to keep funding “high-mach turbines” in this regard.

The requirement for at least three new regular reports to Congress flies in the face of the rationale behind the Section 804 authorities, which urged streamlined, rapid development by eliminating as many reporting requirements as possible.

Air Force officials and aviation experts have urged the parallel development of multiple approaches to hypersonics systems in order to avoid over-reliance on a single technology and to broaden the potential applications beyond theater ballistic missile applications.