The US Air Force has started surveying the market for new hypersonic weapons that can be rapidly integrated and fielded on existing combat aircraft.
A “sources sought” notice released by the Air Force Lifecycle Management Center’s armament directorate on 29 June asks for companies to respond to the survey within two weeks.
Urgency is a key criterion in the USAF’s research. “This new weapon system must be designed and analyzed for rapid development and fielding,” the USAF notice says.
Moreover, the USAF appears to rule-out hypersonic weapons propelled by air-breathing supersonic combustion ramjets, which remains in the proof-of-concept phase.
Instead, the survey specifies a conventional, air-launched strike weapon powered by solid rocket motors.
The weapon must be able to integrated on “existing fighter/bomber” aircraft, the USAF notice adds.
Depending on the results of the survey, the USAF says, the government will decide whether and how to proceed with a follow-on solicitation. Options include performing a full and open competition or providing a set-aside for a small business, the USAF says.
Hypersonic speed is generally defined as above five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5.0.
The USAF has an inventory of ground-launched ballistic missiles with hypersonic capability, but no known air-launched weapons with such speed.
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has funded the Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) programme, which aims to develop a conventional, air-launched, hypersonic strike weapon using solid rocket motors for propulsion.
Last September, DARPA awarded Lockheed Martin a $147 million contract to develop a TBG prototype, with speeds reaching Mach 20 after launching from a Boeing B-52.
The TBG project builds on lessons learned from the DARPA Hypersonic Tactical Vehicle-2 (HTV-2) programme, in which Lockheed built an air-launched weapon that flew for 11min.