How to make hypersonic weapons affordably: Let the commercial world in

The United States has been playing catchup to China and Russia on hypersonic weapons, but it has yet to tap into one of the nation’s greatest advantages. The United States is home to a network of companies that make large volumes of highly trusted components and structures for commercial aircraft. Mark Forkapa of Fiber Materials Inc. explains how such companies can help the Defense Department scale up production of thermal protection systems for hypersonic weapons.


Building hundreds and even thousands of hypersonic boost glide weapons, as the United States must do to catch up to its near peer adversaries, will require industrial-scale production. The Thermal Protection System, TPS, systems for these weapons are rightly viewed as a key cost driver and one of the most challenging elements for production at such scales.

Proving the ability to affordably make TPS at high volumes has not been a key consideration by the science and technology community. The focus at the outset has, understandably, been on the performance of the TPS, which is a key enabler for flight at hypersonic speeds of Mach 5 and above.

Now that the Defense Department has demonstrated performance of TPS through testing such as last year’s flight of the Common Hypersonic Glide Body, C-HGB, prototype, the department can begin shifting from this science and technology focus to an industrialization mindset. The stakes are enormous, given that successful C-HGB testing, for instance, could mean a demand for hundreds and possibly thousands of boost-glide weapons for the inventories of the Army and Navy. The Army, in particular, has said it plans to deploy initial operational prototypes in 2023 or sooner. 

Affordably producing hypersonic weapons such as the C-HGB in large quantities will be possible and can be accelerated if the Department of Defense takes a more risk-tolerant approach to fielding these weapons. For example, once a hypersonic weapon is successfully flight tested, the processes used to produce the successful design are locked to avoid any process changes that may introduce risk to the performance of the weapon. Therefore making revisions to the manufacturing processes becomes very difficult. This also makes it very difficult to implement process improvements such as automation to improve the affordability in scaled production.  

Consider the company I work for, Fiber Materials Inc., or FMI,  which has delivered product and process innovation for over 50 years producing high temperature composite TPS components and structures for weapon systems including Minuteman and Trident missiles, which like C-HGB must survive hypersonic speeds. A little over a year and a half ago we became part of Spirit AeroSystems, the largest aerostructures company in the world.  As a result, it has become clear to me that the Department of Defense can benefit from the commercial cost mindset and industrialization capabilities that commercial aviation manufacturers offer. Here are actions that I believe would accelerate the fielding of hypersonic weapons at scale: 

Accept a more risk-tolerant approach and utilize best practices from the commercial aviation sector to manage risks during scale of production.

While science and technology programs including C-HGB advance innovations that push boundaries in performance, materials for them were made in low volume, custom builds. Most of the time, us as suppliers provided these materials with little consideration for cost or how they could be scaled, often because there was limited understanding of the end application and design requirements for the material. This presents a challenge to industry players who must eventually bring to life large-scale industrialization of these hypersonic weapons.  The commercial aviation sector could provide a blueprint for scaling up and industrializing production within a cost-competitive market. By applying commonly used best practices to hypersonic development, the Department of Defense can facilitate the evolution of initial designs into manufacturable versions, similar to how the design of a new commercial aircraft is advanced into production. Having a process to implement improvements in designs and manufacturing techniques enables affordability, improved performance, and manufacturability. For example, DoD in my example above can leverage commercial aerospace’s process to assess implementing a process change, like introducing process automation performance of the hypersonic weapon. Another example is  employing a digital enterprise linking the design, manufacturing processes and the performance requirements to rapidly assess impacts of changes. As more ground and flight testing is performed, modeling and simulation can be more confidently employed to advance designs while mitigating risk.   

Design for manufacturability has not yet been a focus of the hypersonics development process. As a result, there isn’t yet a well-established process for moving from very costly custom prototyping processes to a scalable process that enables affordability. In current hypersonic programs, any change or deviation to the design or process used to produce the initial  flight test article is viewed as risky to incorporate. This makes it very difficult to optimize the design or processes when industrializing a hypersonic weapon. Simply put, it is very challenging for contractors to implement changes that will drive affordability and enable scaled production. As hypersonic weapons designs continue to evolve, and next-generation designs are developed, the Department of Defense should consider partnering with manufacturers who bring innovation capabilities and past industrialization experience into the design process so that we are enabled to drive continuous improvement throughout the weapon’s life cycle. Suppliers that have a history of scaled production and design capabilities will have established capabilities to drive affordability and accelerate project timelines.

By accepting a more risk-tolerant approach, the Department of Defense and defense primes can accelerate scaling to production, as well as take advantage of the long hypersonic product lifecycle with continuous improvement from suppliers with design and innovation capabilities while leveraging commercial aerospace best practices to manage the risks. Cost improvement opportunities can be built directly into program plans, enabling incremental design and process revisions. 

Invest in capabilities that are flexible and can evolve to meet industry needs 

As the Department of Defense invests in the growth of the industrial base to support high-temperature material manufacturing capabilities, considerations should be made to understand the flexibility that those capabilities will have in producing multiple types of TPS components and materials. The Department of Defense should also identify specific TPS material solutions within the existing industrial base that are optimized for volume production. Investments can be directed towards these highly adaptable TPS manufacturers who possess flexible processes that are readily scaled. As an example, some processes and capabilities — such as a custom hand lay-up for a composite leading edge or a large acreage component — are very specific to a particular design and cannot be easily translated to design changes or other component designs. These manual processes also present variability that makes producibility very challenging, particularly at high rates. However, processes like automated fiber placement and 3D weaving have been proven to produce aerospace structures like full aerostructures, gas turbine engine fan blades and cases. These processes deliver high performance, high repeatability, and affordability at full-rate production and are directly applicable to hypersonic weapons. By investing in processes and equipment that serve many programs and missions, the Department of Defense can maximize its funding to meet numerous hypersonic program goals and ultimately support more effective outcomes for future missions. 

Current hypersonic programs are on the cusp of material production, so now is the time for the Department of Defense to build an industrial base that provides the most flexible capabilities to enable future evolution of designs and material solutions to support progress in a rapidly growing industry. 

Adopting an industrialization mindset

The Department of Defense can also address its organizational structure and collaboration process to support success. An integrated product team, such as those utilized by industry manufacturers and suppliers, would feature a partnership approach that considers all stakeholders — from the materials supplier, component fabricator, system integrator and customer — in its work. When implemented in the development phase, this integrated team approach will accelerate learning curves, improve quality, and reduce flow times. 

Suppliers with industrialization expertise and experience building composites for production volume programs have developed best practices and quality systems, program management expertise, contracting and financial systems, and have the necessary engineering and innovation resources required to execute from concept to full production scale. This holistic mindset enables us to leverage already established business management systems and program management expertise necessary to execute the production scale these hypersonic programs will require in their next phase and beyond. 

By applying this approach to hypersonic weapon design and manufacturing, the Department of Defense can greatly decrease program risk and provide a better return on investment. 

Affordability is attainable 

The potential for innovation with hypersonics materials is endless. Hypersonic weapon programs will continue to evolve, and new weaponry will hinge on high-temperature material capabilities. Key defense industry players are ready to develop and deliver quality materials, but they must be empowered to scale their operations and produce these weapons affordably to meet the nation’s needs for this critical technology. As a technology that enables hypersonic flight, high-temperature composites for thermal protection systems will continue to be an area of focus due to their contribution to weapon performance, affordability, and timing to scale.   

By accepting a more risk-tolerant approach, leveraging commercial best practices, investing in highly adaptable and flexible capabilities, and harnessing industrialization expertise, the nation’s goal of fielding strategic hypersonic weapons affordably and within accelerated program timelines is achievable. With the Department of Defense’s support, the industrial base is ready to deploy best practices, reduce program risk, and meet performance requirements.  

Related Topics

Hypersonic Systems

Mark Forkapa is director of marketing and business development for Fiber Materials Inc., the Maine-based company owned by Spirit AeroSystems. A mechanical engineer by training, Forkapa has spent 25 years in the materials industry.  

How to make hypersonic weapons affordably: Let the commercial world in