MDA taps Lockheed, Raytheon, Northrop to design new hypersonic-busting missile

By Jason Sherman / November 19, 2021

The Missile Defense Agency has tapped three companies to advance their respective concept designs for a Glide Phase Interceptor, setting up a three-way contest between Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman for a new Aegis guided missile optimized to defeat a new class of ultra-fast maneuvering weapons and give the Navy a second layer of defense against hypersonic threats.

Nearly five years after MDA was directed by Congress to create a hypersonic defense program, the agency today announced the milestone development, awarding Lockheed Martin and Raytheon $20 million contracts each and Northrop Grumman $18.5 million to complete accelerated GPI concept designs.

"We are pleased to have these contractors working with us to develop design concepts for the GPI," Rear Adm. Tom Druggan, MDA's sea-based weapon systems program executive said in a statement. "Multiple awards allow us to execute a risk reduction phase to explore industry concepts and maximize the benefits of a competitive environment to demonstrate the most effective and reliable Glide Phase Interceptor for regional hypersonic defense, as soon as possible."

The firm-fixed-price other transaction prototype awards are part of an effort to mature high-risk areas in an effort to assess the viability of a particular concept's unique design characteristics. MDA has $127.3 million in FY-21 funds allocated for GPI development and is seeking $135.8 million for the new interceptor in FY-22.

GPI is intended to be a second layer of defense against hypersonic threats, building on the currently fielded Standard Missile-6 interceptor used for terminal defense. GPI would engage maneuvering glide vehicles during its "regional" phase -- a distance akin to midcourse engagement but inside the atmosphere against a non-ballistic target.

Today’s contract awards mark a pivot from MDA’s focus on technical risk-reduction and concept development efforts for GPI, and caps three years of study and analysis on how best to counter a new class of ultrafast weapons being fielded by Russia and China to maneuver around current U.S. air and ballistic missile defenses.

Each of the companies must design a weapon to be compatible with the Aegis ballistic missile defense-capable destroyers using the standard vertical launch system; MDA said in a statement the new GPI must also integrate with the modified Baseline 9 Aegis Weapon System -- the most advanced variant fielded -- to detect, track, control, and engage hypersonic threats in the glide phase of the missile's flight.

"MDA realizes warfighting capability enabled by hypersonic systems will require that the program concurrently develop the time-critical targeting and command, control and communications capabilities that complete the fire control loop necessary for effective employment of the hypersonic systems,” MDA Spokesman Mark Wright told Inside Defense. “The initial phase of the GPI concept is expected to be demonstrated and, if funded, continue to be developed in an accelerated environment producing an operational prototype.”

Because of their speed -- hypersonic weapons travel at least one mile per second -- their maneuverability and altitude, these ultra-fast systems promise military utility that includes the ability to penetrate even the most sophisticated air and missile defense systems.

“The initial phase, which goes through demonstration in the late 2020s, allows MDA to focus efforts on design and demonstration of the GPI concept for a near-term hypersonic defense capability while maturing the necessary technology needed to increase the battlespace for defending against hypersonic threats,” Wright added. “Future phases, if funded, will mature the concept from there."

The Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, enacted Dec. 23, 2016, directed MDA to establish a hypersonic defense program of record, focusing on hypersonic boost-glide vehicles designed to maneuver inside the atmosphere for most of their flight paths, generating a distinctly non-ballistic trajectory.