Both hypersonic weapons, as well as counter-hypersonic weapons, are among the Department of Defense’s highest technical modernization priorities. Leading the hypersonics charge for the Navy is the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, more commonly known as NSWC Dahlgren. Founded initially to evaluate the Navy’s newest battleship guns, today NSWC Dahlgren is undertaking complex hypersonic weapons research for the Navy.
Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division
In the past, NSWC Dahlgren used capture German technology to evaluate the feasibility of using hypervelocity guns to defend against missiles and strategic bombers. During the early years of the Cold War, Dahlgren also evaluated missile trajectories for the Army’s Ballistic Missile Agency. Dahlgren also tested several other experimental weapons platforms for the Navy throughout the 1970s, including one gun-launched ramjet that nearly flew hypersonically.
Today, NSWC Dahlgren is “applying its deep knowledge of advanced gun systems, guided projectiles, and telemetry to support hypersonic research and development,” according to a Navy statement. “For example, scientists and engineers are developing advanced guidance and control for future hypersonic systems.”
“NSWCDD recently conducted the first of several planned tests by launching a conical projectile, dubbed Hypercone, to collect aerodynamic and aerothermal data relevant to hypersonic flight conditions,” according to the statement. “Dahlgren also has multiple efforts focused on accurately modeling the flow around a hypersonic vehicle. Recently, Dahlgren’s hypersonic efforts have expanded to include roles in the development of offensive missile boost-glide weapons and other collaborative efforts across the DoD.”
Although NSWC Dahlgren is nominally a Navy outfit, the work the division does could be leveraged by the Army and Air Force and adapted for land- or air-based hypersonic weapon variants, per the Navy statement.
Competition and Rivalry
The increased importance placed on hypersonic weapon development has been prompted at least in part by China’s recent successful hypersonic missile tests. A recent report by the Financial Times explained how American analysts were taken aback by a recent Chinese hypersonic weapon test that saw a hypersonic missile circle the earth several times.
Some commentators likened the event to the United States’ Sputnik moment when the Soviet Union’s first space satellite launch prompted a substantial American focus on outer space and winning the space race.
The Navy’s statement ended on an upbeat note and explained that “Dahlgren has an established history of hypersonic work” and a proven track record with the Navy. “We are working the challenges of hypersonic flight and weapon systems integration, and we will lead the development and fielding of naval defensive and offensive hypersonic systems to keep our Navy the best in the world.”
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and defense writer with the National Interest. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.