Congressional Research Service
by Kelly M. Sayler, Analyst in Advanced Technology and Global Security
The United States has actively pursued the development of hypersonic weapons—maneuvering weapons that fly at speeds of at least Mach 5—as a part of its conventional prompt global strike program since the early 2000s. In recent years, the United States has focused such efforts on developing hypersonic glide vehicles, which are launched from a rocket before gliding to a target, and hypersonic cruise missiles, which are powered by high-speed, air-breathing engines during flight. As former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Commander of U.S. Strategic Command General John Hyten has stated, these weapons could enable “responsive, long-range, strike options against distant, defended, and/or time-critical threats [such as road-mobile missiles] when other forces are unavailable, denied access, or not preferred.” Critics, on the other hand, contend that hypersonic weapons lack defined mission requirements, contribute little to U.S. military capability, and are unnecessary for deterrence.
Funding for hypersonic weapons has been relatively restrained in the past; however, both the Pentagon and Congress have shown a growing interest in pursuing the development and near-term deployment of hypersonic systems. This is due, in part, to the advances in these technologies in Russia and China, both of which have a number of hypersonic weapons programs and have likely fielded operational hypersonic glide vehicles—potentially armed with nuclear warheads. Most U.S. hypersonic weapons, in contrast to those in Russia and China, are not being designed for use with a nuclear warhead. As a result, U.S. hypersonic weapons will likely require greater accuracy and will be more technically challenging to develop than
nuclear-armed Chinese and Russian systems.
The Pentagon’s FY2023 budget request for hypersonic research is $4.7 billion—up from $3.8 billion in the FY2022 request. The Missile Defense Agency additionally requested $225.5 million for hypersonic defense. At present, the Department of Defense (DOD) has not established any programs of record for hypersonic weapons, suggesting that it may not have approved either mission requirements for the systems or long-term funding plans. Indeed, as Principal Director for Hypersonics (Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering) Mike White has stated, DOD has not yet made a decision to acquire hypersonic weapons and is instead developing prototypes to assist in the evaluation of potential weapon system concepts and mission sets.
By Stephen Losey
FARNBOROUGH, England — Recent successful flights of two autonomous XQ-58A Valkyrie drones show the Air Force’s Skyborg program has proven itself and could be ready to start evolving its capabilities into new systems, a Kratos Defense and Security Solutions executive said.
“This is getting to the end of the Skyborg program, is where we are,” Jeffrey Herro, senior vice president for business development in Kratos’ unmanned systems division, said in an July 18 interview with Defense News at the Farnborough Air Show in England. “And then it will morph into other programs.”
Kratos’ Valkyrie drones have carried out flight tests before as part of the Air Force’s Skyborg program, an artificial intelligence-driven wingman that had its first flight test in a drone in April 2021.
Herro said the most recent flights differed from previous tests, though he would not specify exactly how.
“We definitely were looking at envelope expansion,” Herro said when asked if these flights entailed testing more advanced capabilities.
Herro also would not say where the tests took place or exactly when, aside from saying they took place within the last two months, and that they were successful. Kratos declined to say exactly how many flights occurred, aside from saying two Valkyries were involved, and there was a series of tests.
Skyborg will likely be wound down and the capabilities it has proven will feed into new systems for the Air Force in the near future, Herro said — possibly within a year.
“The future is here,” he said. “The Skyborg program has progressed to a place where the things that they’ve learned from it will almost assuredly be applied in a future and morphed program. What they have learned will definitely inform the follow-on programs to Skyborg.”
The Air Force in recent months has intensified its focus on teaming autonomous unmanned aircraft up with piloted fighters, with Secretary Frank Kendall calling it one of his top priorities. Kendall said he envisioned teams of about five autonomous drones — what the Air Force now refers to as collaborative combat aircraft — flying alongside F-35s or the Next Generation Air Dominance platform.
Lockheed Martin said this month it’s eyeing a mix of expendable drone wingmen and more advanced autonomous systems for the U.S. Air Force to team up with its manned fighters. The service could fly the expendable drones in as soon as three years, the vice president and general manager of the company’s advanced development programs division, known as Skunk Works, said July 11.