US Air Force awards nearly US$1b for hypersonic missile

WASHINGTON: The US Air Force is awarding almost US$1 billion to Lockheed Martin to design and develop a hypersonic missile that can be launched from a warplane.

The contract follows repeated warnings from senior defence officials about rapid advances by China and Russia in the field of hypersonic weaponry, where missiles can fly at many times the speed of sound and dodge missile-defence systems.

In a statement late Wednesday, the Pentagon said Lockheed will receive up to US$928 million to build the new, non-nuclear missile it is calling the "hypersonic conventional strike weapon."

"This contract provides for the design, development, engineering, systems integration, test, logistics planning, and aircraft integration support of all the elements of a hypersonic, conventional, air-launched, stand-off weapon," the statement read.

On Thursday, Mike Griffin, the Pentagon's new defence undersecretary for research and engineering, said China had built "a pretty mature system" for a hypersonic missile to strike from thousands of kilometres (miles) away.

"We will, with today's defensive systems, not see these things coming," Griffin said.

Hypersonic weapons can beat regular anti-missile defences as they are designed to switch direction in flight and do not follow a predictable arc like conventional missiles, making them much harder to track and intercept.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in February claimed to have developed a new type of hypersonic missile that is impervious to any Western shield.

Gary Pennett, director of operations at the Missile Defence Agency, recently said enemy hypersonic weapons — which could be launched from planes, ships or submarines — would create a "significant" gap in US sensor and missile interceptor capabilities.

The MDA has asked for US$120 million to develop hypersonic missile defences, a big increase from the US$75 million in fiscal 2018. — AFP