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USAF awards Lockheed Martin $928 million contract for hypersonic cruise missile

Huntsville, Alabama-based Lockheed Martin Space will develop the US Air Force’s first hypersonic cruise missile under a new contract awarded on 18 April.

The indefinite-delivery and indefinite quantity award worth up to $928 million suggests the USAF is ready to move past several decades of development and demonstrations of weapons that can cruise for long distances at speeds exceeding Mach 5.

The award came out of a competitive acquisition process in which three offers where received, according to an award notice. The USAF did not name the other bidders, though when the competition was announced in July 2017 the service named Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon Missile Systems as the only acceptable bidders due to timeframe constraints.

The USAF is accelerating its efforts to develop hypersonic weapons and aircraft in light of advances and investments made in hypersonic technology by China and Russia.

The difficulty in defending against hypersonic weapons has pushed the Pentagon into an arms race. Developing hypersonic weapons is the “highest technical priority” for the US military, said Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, in March 2018.

The USAF award to Lockheed Martin also implies a shift in hypersonic technology leadership away from Boeing. Boeing had been the recipient of several USAF contracts, including funding from the Air Force Research Laboratory for its X-51A scramjet, a waverider hypersonic demonstrator which during its first powered flight in 2010 reached Mach 5.

The hypersonic cruise missile contracted by the USAF must be capable of being carried on fighter and bomber aircraft, according to the service’s solicitation notice. The weapon must have precision strike capability against high-value, time-critical fixed and relocatable surface targets in a single or multi-theater challenged environment. And, it will utilize the Global Position System and Inertial Guidance System for navigation as well as terminal guidance with a government furnished warhead.

DARPA and the USAF have other hypersonic initiatives, such as the boost glide programme. 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. Boeing demonstrated a hypersonic glide missile, its HiFire, in June 2017.

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