THANKING THE TEAM: Secretary of the Army, Hon. Ryan D. McCarthy, visited defense contractor facilities and government offices at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama on July 1 to thank personnel for their work on high-priority Army projects during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Sgt. James Harvey)
To quicken the delivery of hypersonic capabilities, the Army had to create the industrial base for the technology. Then came COVID-19.
by Raymond D. Wesley
On Valentine’s Day 2019, Lt. Gen. L. Neil Thurgood, then a major general, received an unprecedented gift: Army senior leaders gave him responsibility for the Army’s hypersonic future.
Hypersonic weapons are capable of flying at five times the speed of sound and operate at varying altitudes, making them unique from other missiles with a ballistic trajectory. With Russia and China quickly developing hypersonic missiles, posing a challenge to existing defensive systems, the United States military needed to act. In accordance with the 2018 National Defense Strategy and its emphasis on great power competition, the United States significantly increased and accelerated investments in hypersonic systems of its own.
For the Army, this change would require partnering with the Navy to develop a combat-capable prototype hypersonic weapon system that would be fielded to an operational battery of Soldiers by the end of the 2023 fiscal year—two years earlier than the Army’s previous plan to deliver a hypersonic missile in 2025. For Thurgood and his team, that meant executing an enormous mission delivery in just four and a half years.
Developing and fielding a new major weapon system can take many years, so this was no small task. However, shortening the timeline by two years was just the beginning of several challenges.
Having been developed primarily by a national laboratory, the missile to be used for the Army and Navy hypersonic weapon prototypes was essentially a test asset. Known as the Common Hypersonic Glide Body (CHGB), it comprises a conventional warhead, guidance system, cabling, and thermal protection shield. It uses a booster rocket motor to accelerate to well-above hypersonic speeds, and then leaves the expended rocket booster and glides to the target. But in February 2019, experimental hypersonic glide bodies had flown just a handful of successful tests. But in order to field an operational prototype by 2023, an aggressive schedule of joint flight tests would be required to evaluate, demonstrate and refine the hypersonic capability before delivering it to operational users. To meet this aggressive flight schedule, design and development efforts had to be able to evolve quickly.
The technology required for the Army Long Range Hypersonic Weapon had three main pieces. One piece was the CHGB: the focus of this article and a joint effort of the Army, Navy, Sandia National Laboratories, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, and multiple industry partners. The second piece was the booster, which would also be developed jointly with industry, the Army and the Navy. The third piece was the ground support equipment (trucks, launchers, and battery operations center) for an Army fires battery that would man the system, which also required industry support to modify and integrate existing and new technologies to achieve new effects.
As part of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) Conventional Prompt Strike effort, the services are partnering to execute hypersonics through the use of a common glide body, missile design similarities and joint test opportunities. While the Navy will lead the design of the glide body, the Army will lead production, which includes building a new industrial base that can meet the demands of producing the glide bodies on a larger scale than the national laboratories have done in the past.
Within the Army, three separate organizations, including the Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office’s (RCCTO) Army Hypersonic Project Office; the Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC); and the Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center (DEVCOM AVMC), contributed to the effort. The Navy Strategic Systems Programs office was responsible for taking over glide body design responsibility from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Across these stakeholders, there was not a complete technical data package, at any level, for the experimental flight units. A technical data package provides the authoritative technical information on a system, including design configuration, performance requirements and applicable data and standards. With detailed components such as drawings, specifications and software documentation, the package establishes common ground for engineers and other personnel who are working on different aspects of the same mission. The technical data package would be critical to the Army efforts to transition the production of the glide body out of government laboratories and into a new commercial industrial base for hypersonics in the United States defense sector. Once established, this industrial base would be capable of supporting the glide body production demands of the joint services, both for prototype systems and potential future programs of record.
After all the challenges, the must-have acceleration, and the many “firsts” of the hypersonics program, along came the COVID-19 pandemic. The dangers of the virus required the government-industry team to rapidly adapt to new working conditions and implement several creative measures to safely stay on track. Despite all of these complications, however, the Army Hypersonic Project Office set its course, made tremendous strides in the past 18 months, and is well on the way to achieving the mission.
When hypersonics was considered an experiment—before the U.S. adjusted its prioritization and investments in response to great power competition—the typical schedule for hypersonic flight tests was approximately once every three years. Under new priorities, flight tests will occur much more frequently to advance and inform hypersonic development and fielding.
A major milestone occurred on March 19, 2020, when the Navy and Army successfully executed Flight Experiment 2 (FE-2). The launch of the glide body, which flew at hypersonic speed and with precision accuracy to a designated impact point, met its objectives. As the Army marches toward fielding the LRHW prototype, joint flight tests will be conducted every six to 12 months. To execute the initial planned tests, Sandia National Laboratories is now being asked to design and build glide bodies at a much faster pace.
This tremendous ramp-up in schedule requires processing the glide bodies for upcoming tests in a staggered, parallel fashion, rather than one at a time, while also requiring component procurement to run in tandem with the design and development effort. For example, the team is conducting final assembly and testing of the glide body for the most imminent test and building assemblies for the next test vehicles, while procuring components like include circuit cards, electronic modules, and cables. While the standard engineering practice is to design, build, test and then produce the final production technical data package, the AHPO team is developing the engineering-level design documents, then building and developing a production-level technical data package, concurrently with a series of tests to finalize the complete design. Obviously there is risk of re-work in this methodology if there is a test failure, but that risk is outweighed by the need to move quickly to deter or defeat our near peer competitors.
The product-level technical data package is planned to transition glide body production out of government labs and into industry, with the first contract for prototype glide body production awarded to Dynetics Technical Solutions in August 2019. Likewise, trained personnel who understand the technology and design details are critical to transition of this technology from Sandia to Dynetics and its subcontractors. Additional personnel provided by Dynetics and its subcontractors have received training from Sandia in order to execute the parallel builds. These trained technicians can then transfer that knowledge to industry’s production facilities.
In another major effort, the Army and Navy aligned all stakeholders onto a common schedule of glide body testing and production, in order to support Army prototype delivery in the 2023 fiscal year and Navy prototype delivery in the 2025 fiscal year. Flipping the switch from the occasional flight test every few years to flight tests every year, or more frequently, in conjunction with design development while preparing for production, was no small task, involving synchronization of hundreds of joint program milestones and documents ranging from critical design reviews to classification guides to new equipment training plans. The joint team also worked through culture gaps and the dynamics of “forming, storming and norming” to quickly begin performing at a high level. A key factor in making all of this happen quickly was the professionalism of the team and the shared understanding of the industry partners regarding the importance of the hypersonics mission to the National Defense Strategy. Seeing Russian and Chinese hypersonic advancements in the news headlines provided consistent reinforcement.
BRINGING TECHNOLOGY AND STAKEHOLDERS TOGETHER
As plans were established to achieve all critical test and production activities, it quickly became apparent that the small community of engineers and technicians who had been working glide body efforts for many years would not be sufficient to meet the new quantity and schedule demands in place. Industry partners needed to be brought up to speed and trained on the glide body design and production methods, and the Sandia team would need additional personnel to conduct all of the work now facing them. A lack of resources extended beyond technical expertise, and included more mundane tasks such as support for all of the procurement activities, building or procuring additional test equipment, finding facilities to conduct all the work, and building the industrial capacity to meet the demand for leading edge technologies.
To begin transitioning that information to industry partners, the team leveraged a mix of Navy and Army contracts, along with support agreements among the Army, Navy and Sandia. The first transition efforts dealt with the industry team reviewing Sandia’s “Block 0” glide body designs for production issues, providing options to obtain long-lead or expensive items, and a variety of other concerns. That work has paid off in several significant ways; one of which allowed the team to move from an expensive, custom-built, high-voltage capacitor to using a redesigned capacitor, reducing cost by more than 70 percent for this one component. Weekly meetings were quickly established to discuss every aspect of these module builds, from documentation to procurement of parts, and test requirements.
Sandia’s status as a federally funded research and development center made it easier to bring in contractors from outside their mission. Since Sandia’s focus was not on production, they understood the importance of transitioning this work to another team. Had this hand-off occurred between traditional industrial partners, time would have been a concern as hurdles such as contract modifications, which can take months to process, would have come into play.
Sandia was able to increase capacity to support the builds by using, and simultaneously training, industry technicians and engineers. In just a few months, the experts at Sandia developed a comprehensive training course, starting with the design theory and progressing to hands-on activities with flight hardware in the lab. This leader-follower approach allows the industry team to learn and become proficient before they are contractually obligated to assemble, integrate and test production hardware in their own facilities, such as the Dynetics facility in Huntsville, Alabama. Sandia, with a heritage that includes nuclear weapons, had never before permitted anyone other than their own personnel to build or test hardware in its labs. Bringing industry partners on board to learn hypersonics required the creation of a “guest-worker” policy and new course material. This innovative effort ultimately established a solid foundation for the training program and a more rapid transition from lab prototyping to industry production.
While looking at putting a second cadre of industry personnel through training, the Sandia team came to realize that their new industry partners were more than up to the task. In order to keep Sandia’s experts focused on building and testing hardware, the team decided to use several of the newly trained industry team members to conduct the second round of training. Freeing up the Sandia experts from these training duties also gave the industry team a dry-run for their training teams to get experience before heading home to Huntsville, where they would eventually replicate the glide body activities in their own facilities. Ultimately, this effort produced a “badgeless” government and industry team focused on meeting the mission and common goals. An outsider walking through the labs and talking to the technicians and engineers would not know if they were talking to members of the Sandia team or an employee of any one of the three industry partners performing work on-site.
In parallel to all of the hardware work in the labs were the design activities. There were no standardized hypersonic design processes or tools across the government, which resulted in numerous challenges to overcome. For example, each organization had different software tools. Yet, in a surprisingly quick decision, the team settled on one product lifecycle management tool to manage all the needs for real-time information sharing, classification, data visualization, and collaboration across multi-disciplinary, geographically-separated teams. This move to a common platform was a significant investment both in dollars and time. As anyone who has been involved in bringing a new major software system online across an enterprise knows, it’s not always a smooth transition. However, this initiative has provided significant benefits, such as being able to transfer the integrated design from one organization to another while retaining the structure and documentation links necessary to capture the design, provide a common access point for review approvals, and provide the ability to create and share the current approved, “as built” configuration lists, on demand.
SUCCESS DURING A PANDEMIC
Just as the team was starting to feel confident, with various training sessions completed, integrated product teams collaborating, and new contracts and support agreements executing, along came COVID-19. The initial reaction to COVID-19 was confusion, uncertainty, and disarray; but not for long. How did the team keep everything on track? First, it started with the people. Across the board, whether military, government civilians, or members of the industry team, everyone was committed to the mission, as well as utmost importance of personnel safety.
As soon as things shut down across the country, the team started making use of teleconferencing and video conferencing tools available to them. With the various firewalls in place at the different organizations and on the virtual private networks, no single tool initially worked for everyone. The industry partners were amazingly quick to open up access to their knowledge base and technology for their government peers and the same was true on the government side for our industry partners.
Physical work in the labs was another issue altogether. The Sandia medical team worked with the program to develop risk-mitigating methods for working in close quarters. These measures included procuring personal protective equipment, rearranging lab space, opening additional lab space, adding clear barriers and installing a closed circuit video system. The video system allows for a limited number of people in the labs, while others can remotely “look over their shoulders” at the work being performed. To date, despite the close quarters and a few self-quarantines because of potential secondary exposure, as of this writing there has not been a single case of COVID-19 among the combined team at Sandia.
A GREAT TEAM STORY
The hypersonics team was given a critical mission that would have been tough enough without having to deal with a pandemic. Through it all, a team of dedicated professionals demonstrated what government and industry can do when working together. By and large, issues inherent to establishing a new organization out of disparate, previously existing teams were set aside. While there is still plenty of work to be done, the joint team is on track to field this new hypersonic prototype battery capability before October 2023.
For more information, go to the RCCTO website at: https://rapidcapabilitiesoffice.army.mil/.
RAYMOND D. WESLEY is the deputy program manager for the glide body production. He joined the Army Hypersonics Project Office in March of 2019, bringing with him more than 20 years of manufacturing and program management experience from industry and government service. He has a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Central Florida, is DAWIA Level III certified in Engineering, Program Management, and Production, Quality and Manufacturing, and is a member of the U.S. Army Acquisition Corps.