The main thrust of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency's counter-hypersonic strategy has just been revealed.
The Regional Glide Phase Weapon System (RGPWS) prototype project demonstrates an interception capability against a medium- or intermediate-range threat.
The MDA revealed the existence of the program in a request for prototype proposals released to industry on Dec. 5. An industry day for the RGPWS prototype project is scheduled on Dec. 18 at an MDA facility on Redstone Arsenal, Alabama.
The RGPWS shows the MDA is moving faster to field at least a prototype counter-hypersonic capability than previous efforts suggested.
The MDA had previously defined a concept for a Hypersonic Defense Weapon System (HDWS). The agency selected 21 proposals from industry in September 2018 for concept definition studies. MDA then down selected to five concepts in late August and early September 2019 for a nine-month-long concept refinement phase. The selected proposals included four kinetic concepts based on existing boosters and one Raytheon-directed energy system.
The RGPWS is a parallel effort by MDA to the HDWS. The companies selected for the HDWS concept refinement phase could submit separate proposals for RGPWS. But other companies that were rejected after the concept definition phase or did not participate in HDWS can participate in the RGPWS, says Tom Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), who was briefed on the program on Dec. 9.
For example, Northrop Grumman's proposal was not down selected for the HDWS concept refinement phase, but it intends to compete for the RGPWS prototype project.
“Northrop Grumman is engaged with MDA on Hypersonic Defense Regional Glide Phase Weapon System and will attend the upcoming industry day,” a spokesman says.
Northrop has been developing kinetic and non-kinetic options for missile defense, including one concept in the latter category called the Terminal and Regional Electronic Attack Defense System.
The acknowledgment of the RGPWS offers a limited glimpse into MDA's development strategy for the burgeoning counter-hypersonic capability. In July 2017, the agency first disclosed plans for funding a hypersonic defense demonstration. An item in the Selected Acquisition Reports for the Ballistic Missile Defense System added $508 million to the program's overall budget to pay for such a demonstration. In March 2019, the agency disclosed it would spend more than $600 million on hypersonic defense capabilities by the end of fiscal 2024.
By emphasizing a “glide phase” weapon with a “regional” targeting area, the MDA also provided clues about the intent of the demonstration. It does not appear to be targeting an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear hypersonic glide vehicle as the warhead, such as Russia's Avangard. It is more likely designed to target a hypersonic glide vehicle with regional range, Karako says. Options may include hypersonic glide vehicles on China's DF-17 and DF-21 missiles.
“That's a good thing,” Karako says. “It's a smart move for MDA to start there.”
Separately, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency continues to pursue the Glide Breaker program. It was revealed in July 2018 as a program with a particular interest in “component technologies that radically reduce risk for development and integration of an operational hard-kill system,” according to a DARPA solicitation document. But no further details about Glide Breaker have been released.