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Military Leaders Discuss Hypersonics, Supply Chain Vulnerabilities

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The nation's top military leaders  today discussed challenges to getting hypersonic weapons from blueprint to production during a question-and-answer session at a Washington think tank.

Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy said hypersonic weapons — which can travel at five times the speed of sound — are a growing national security threat. To mitigate that threat, the Defense Department will need a low-earth orbit satellite architecture, much wider arrays and the ability to queue targets very quickly, along with a joint command and control system, said McCarthy. 

Four people sit in front of an audience.
Center for Strategic & International Studies
From left: Kathleen H. Hick, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy; Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett; and Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly, speak at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Feb. 21, 2020.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Dana Clarke
VIRIN: 200221-A-GV774-001

McCarthy, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly, and Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Hypersonic Weapons

McCarthy said hypersonic weapons are of joint interest to each of the military services. He said the secretaries meet regularly to discuss  how they can be employed and how they can be financed, and they share information, including test data.

"How they're used and employed by the services will be very different because the means are different," McCarthy said, adding that there should be enough similarities that there will be some cost savings.

Rocket test fires
Hot Fire
A X-60A hot fire test is conducted at Cecil Spaceport in Jacksonville, Fla., Jan. 14, 2020. The X-60A, developed through an Air Force Research Laboratory Small Business Innovation Research contract, is an air-launched rocket designed for hypersonic flight research.
Photo By: Air Force
VIRIN: 200114-F-FX606-001C

Barrett said hypersonics are a joint effort. "If we did it separately, there would be duplications and inefficiencies that we couldn't afford," she said.

Modly said moving hypersonics from design and testing to production is a big leap. "We're going to have to send some strong signals to industry that that's the direction we're headed. …We're trying to send those signals," Modly said.

Supply Chain Vulnerabilities

Modly said supply chain vulnerabilities are a big concern. "It's not so much the top tier suppliers, but it's the second and third tier suppliers that have a lot of vulnerabilities that we've discovered," he said. 

Adequate information technology security is a big investment for small companies to make, Modly said.

An Air Force cadet looks through a tube.
Tunnel Trials
Air Force Cadet 2nd Class Eric Hembling uses a Ludwieg tube, a type of wind tunnel, to measure the pressures, temperatures and flow fields of basic geometric and hypersonic research vehicles at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., Jan. 31, 2019.
Photo By: Joshua Armstrong, Air Force
VIRIN: 190131-F-NH566-0001Y

"We need to work with them and the primes [contractors] to come up with a better way to protect information," he said. "Our adversaries are coming at us through that channel. And, they're able to fish their way right up through that channel. It erodes our competitive advantage."

The Navy did a study on this about a year ago and implemented a lot of changes to address this, Modley added.

McCarthy also discussed another concern about the supply chain: the origin of components used in weapons systems and how they could compromise those systems. He said an example is semiconductors.

"We really don't make those in America anymore, and they're in everything," he said.

A sailor kneels on a ship's flight deck while working on an aircraft.
Seahawk Support
Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Kirsten Jankowski works on an MH-60S Seahawk aboard the USS Little Rock in the Atlantic Ocean, Feb. 8, 2020.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Marianne Guemo
VIRIN: 200208-N-RL695-3055C

The DOD needs to find a way to help protect that and other U.S. markets, he said. DOD needs to know where those components are made and who's making them.

He added that the problem goes back decades. 

Barrett said the Air Force is facing the same supply chain vulnerabilities as the Army and Navy.

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