Nov. 12 (UPI) -- A joint program by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency and U.S. Army Operational Fires has selected three companies to develop and demonstrate a ground-launched propulsion system for hypersonic missiles.
Aerojet Rocketdyne, Exquadrum, and Sierra Nevada have each received contracts to begin work on design and development for the systems, DARPA announced on Friday.
OpFires envisions a mobile ground-based launch for the hypersonic systems for targeting land targets at high speed and long ranges while evading enemy air defense.
The proposed system would be able to launch a variety of payloads at different ranges depending on the mission. Phase 1 of the program will be a year-long effort for early development and demonstration of booster rockets that provide variable thrust propulsion for large aerial missiles in changing conditions and operations.
"OpFires represents a critical capability development in support of the Army's investments in long-range precision fires," Army Maj. Amber Walker, DARPA's OpFires program manager, said in a press release.
"These awards are the first step in the process to deliver this capability in support of U.S. overmatch," Walker said.
The OpFires program will perform subsystem test series for component reliability and system compatibility tactical environments.
Phase 2 will improve designs and demonstrate performance with live and static fire tests, which are anticipated to be performed in late 2020. Phase 3, which will focus on weapon system integration, will be followed by end-to-end launch and flight tests in 2022.
Hypersonic missiles are designed for engaging targets at extremely high speeds and at very long ranges. They are specifically meant for time-sensitive engagements and penetrating heavily defended airspace, using high speed to out-climb, dive or outrun enemy surface-to-air missiles and aircraft.
Russia and China are also investing in both ground and air-launched hypersonic missiles. China conducted a test of a hypersonic missile, which, according to the Department of Defense, would be capable of carrying conventional or nuclear warheads and travel at top speeds of over Mach 7, making it very difficult to intercept. China has neither confirmed or denied U.S. claims of the missile's capabilities.