The race to field battle-ready hypersonic missiles heated up this week, as the US Army awarded two key contracts to catch up to Russia and China. After years of one-off experimental prototypes, the US plans to produce and field actual weapons, Breaking Defense reported.

Dynetics won US$351.6 million to build at least 20 Common Hypersonic Glide Bodies for both the Army and the Navy. Some components will go to the Air Force as well.

Lockheed Martin won US$347 million to integrate at least eight of those glide bodies with guidance systems, rocket boosters, protective canisters, and so on, arming a battery of four Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) launchers.

Both contracts use Other Transaction Authority (OTA) to bypass much of the usual procurement bureaucracy and get the weapons to troops faster.

Yes, these weapons are still technically prototypes, since the Army expects to refine the design based on feedback from soldiers in the field. But the service’s chief, Lt. Gen. Neil Thurgood, has said the four-launcher battery will be an operational unit, focused on field tests and experiments but available for combat in a crisis by 2023, the report said.

The Army, Navy, and Air Force are working closely together on hypersonics, so the Dynetics’ contract, although awarded by the Army, will provide at least some components for all three services. The Marine Corps, as part of the Navy Department, doesn’t have their own hypersonics acquisition program, but they’re likely to end up using the Army’s land-based version.

Specifically, Dynetics is building the Common-Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB). That’s the part of the missile that breaks off from the booster after launch and skips nimbly in and out of the atmosphere, maneuvering nimbly at Mach 5-plus. The idea is to combine the blistering speed of a ballistic missile with the agility of a cruise missile, defeating enemy missile defenses.

The Army and Navy will use identical glide bodies — hence “common” — but the two services will integrate them with different booster rockets and packaging to meet the radically different demands of launching from a truck versus a submerged submarine, the report said.

The Air Force version, which has to fit on an aircraft and launch in flight, needs a different glide body, but it should still use 70% of the same components.

Dynetics concept for the Common Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB) for the Army and Navy. The Air Force will use a similar glide body. Handout.

Lockheed Martin’s newly announced contract, by contrast, is solely for the Army’s land-based version, the LRHW. That said, Lockheed already got a US$480 million contract with the Air Force to build their variant, the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW).

LRHW will be able to travel at speeds of over 1.7 km per second (3,800 mph), dodge above the atmosphere and hit targets anywhere in the world within minutes, according to Defense Update.

And Lockheed has an ever larger contract, US$928 million, to build a different kind of hypersonic system, also for the Air Force, called the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW). That makes the aerospace titan — already the largest defense contractor on the planet — the leading company in this rapidly growing field.

“Lockheed Martin is driving rapid technical development for these national priority programs,” said Eric Scherff, vice president for Hypersonic Strike Programs for Lockheed Martin Space. “There are natural synergies with our industry teammates. We believe our relationships offer the Army unmatched expertise and put us in the best position to deliver this critical capability to the nation.”

While all three services are urgently fielding hypersonics, the Army is the one that’s furthest outside its comfort zone. It hasn’t had any weapon with such a long range since the Pershing II missile of the Cold War. But the Army fears its sister services won’t be able to provide round-the-clock air support in a war with Russia or China, which have invested heavily in advanced anti-aircraft defenses.

So the Army has decided it needs its own land-based weapons with ranges up to 1,400 miles. Such Long Range Precision Fires are the service’s No. 1 modernization priority.

According to Defense Update, the C-HGB weapon system uses a booster rocket motor to accelerate to hypersonic speed and then jettisons the expended rocket booster.

The glide body continues to fly at hypersonic speed, bouncing over the upper atmosphere and into space in a series of “leaps,” each leap changes the trajectory of the glide body, thus determines the final impact point.

Flying at the edge of the atmosphere makes detection and tracking highly difficult, which makes the hypersonic glide body extremely difficult to intercept from. The glide body is designed to survive the extreme temperatures and pressure changes encountered during reentries and deliver its payload on target with high precision.