Lockheed Martin has opened a new hypersonic manufacturing facility in Courtland, Alabama, as part of its mission to deliver critical twenty-first-century warfare capabilities to the U.S. military.
The 65,000-square-foot facility, called Missile Assembly Building 4 (MAB 4), will be used to build the Army’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW), the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) missile, and the Air Force’s Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW). The LRHW is a surface-to-surface hypersonic weapon intended to be launched from road-mobile missile systems—a substantial boon to the potency and survivability of the U.S. military’s strike capabilities. The CPS program aims to develop a hypersonic missile system capable of striking any target on the planet within one hour. The CPS system will be compatible with a wide array of surface ships and submarines, including the next-generation Zumwalt-class stealth destroyer and the Virginia-class attack submarine. ARRW is a long-range hypersonic missile that is expected to enhance the Air Force’s ability to strike high-value, time-sensitive targets. ARRW is projected to reach initial operating capability (IOC) in the early 2020s; LRHW is scheduled for prototype deployment in 2023; and CPS will enter service in 2025.
Lockheed Martin is striving not only to design cutting-edge defense products but to revolutionize the manufacturing process itself with a series of ambitious supply-side investments. The Courtland facility is the latest of four “intelligent factory” locations opened by Lockheed Martin in 2021. Earlier this year, Lockheed Martin launched a 215,000 square foot state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Palmdale, California. The Palmdale facility is a stunning showcase of Lockheed Martin’s digital engineering methods, leveraging augmented reality (AR), robotics, and artificial intelligence for substantial gains in manufacturing efficiency and capability.
"Some of the most advanced research these days is surely in manufacturing," Jim Purtilo, associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, previously told the National Interest. "The DoD (Department of Defense) has cutting edge systems that work well yet are spectacularly complex to manufacture and even more complex to maintain. That complexity translates to cost. Developing ways to manufacture sustainable versions of these systems without loss of functionality would be a huge force multiplier." This is precisely the complex, but necessary task that Lockheed Martin has taken up. The company noted that its Courtland location features the latest and most advanced manufacturing practices, including “thermal protection application capabilities, smart torque tools and mixed-reality capabilities for training and virtual inspections.” The new facility will interface with Lockheed Martin’s Intelligent Factory Framework, a consolidated digital network aimed at optimizing the company’s production operations with digital interlinkage and artificial intelligence-powered analytics. “The nature of the design—the flow of work product—we modeled it all through digital engineering practices, we've designed it using digital design techniques, augmented reality, virtual reality,” said Eric Scherff, vice president of Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “This is from the ground up designed to be one of our flagship digital factories.”
Lockheed Martin officials did not mince words in describing the pressing national security need for heightened investment into hypersonic weapons systems, mirroring the nearly-unanimous concern of top military officials that the United States is lagging dangerously behind its Chinese and Russian counterparts in key weapons development areas. “We are unfortunately very behind, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do but with the technologies the United States can bring, the workforce, and the passion this workforce can bring to this mission, we can absolutely catch up and we absolutely need to catch up,” said Scherff. “The talented teams who work at these new advanced strike production facilities are delivering essential missile and hypersonic vehicle technologies in support of the U.S. National Defense Strategy,” added Jay Pitman, vice president of Air Dominance and Strike Weapons at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control.
Russia’s military currently fields the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle as well as the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air-launched, nuclear-capable hypersonic missile, and will soon accept the 3M22 Tsirkon anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile into service. China’s DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle achieved initial operating capability (IOC) status in 2019. The United States currently does not “have systems which can hold [China and Russia] at risk in a corresponding manner, and we don’t have defenses against [their] systems,” said Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin during an earlier testimony to Congress. Washington has, in recent years, stepped up its efforts to catch up to Russia and China with a flurry of new hypersonic weapons programs.
U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) joined Lockheed Martin president Jim Taiclet, Alabama governor Kay Ivey, Courtland mayor Linda Peebles, and others in cutting the ribbon on the new facility. The Courtland facility solidifies Lockheed Martin’s status as one of the country’s foremost developers and manufacturers of hypersonic weapons technology at a time of resurgent great-power competition. “That is a race we must win, dealing with China and Russia and other people in the world,” said Shelby. “We cannot afford to come in second or third.”
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.