DARPA OpFires Program Enters Phase 3

Phase 3 of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s Operational Fires (OpFires) program has begun this month, the agency announced.

The OpFires Phase 3 program will enable capabilities for a mobile, ground-launched tactical weapon delivery system capable of carrying a variety of payloads to a variety of ranges. Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control is leading the integration effort for the third phase of the program, which will focus on first stage booster design and maturation, launcher development, and vehicle integration.

The program entered Phase 3 with government and contractor staff finalizing the system architecture approach, including a plan to use existing components from ground-launched missile systems, along with new booster technologies designed to support future hypersonic weapons.

According to DARPA, broad participation from the U.S. Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC), range safety offices, and performers from OpFires Phase 2 propulsion teams contributed to success in the early, critical stages of the program.

Since 2018, OpFires has made impressive strides developing and demonstrating advanced booster technologies that had never been used in prior systems. Phase 1 and 2 performers Aerojet Rocketdyne, Exquadrum, and Sierra Nevada Corporation continue work towards throttle-able upper stage rocket motors suitable for tactical transport, storage, and engagement.

“The objective of DARPA’s OpFires program is to deliver an intermediate-range surface-to-surface missile in line with the Department of Defense’s push to field hypersonic platforms,” said Army Maj. Amber Walker, the DARPA program manager for OpFires.

The latest milestone of the OpFires program came amid the report that Army will no longer provide funding for OpFires integration work. DARPA announced that it will continue pressing forward with Phase 3 activities to “further advance the program goals of affordability and mobility for U.S. and Allied forward forces”.

“DARPA enjoys a high level of collaboration among a diverse industry and government team that is critical for meeting the Phase 3 program objectives and eventually demonstrating this critical hypersonic capability,” said Michael Leahy, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “In keeping with its charter to demonstrate breakthrough technologies, we will continue to push towards demonstration of an affordable, mobile system that will be compatible with advanced payloads and offer a variety of future strike capabilities across a large engagement zone.”

Next steps for the OpFires program include a series of full-scale static motor firings, as well as further subsystem tests designed to evaluate component design and system compatibility, culminating in integrated end-to-end flight tests.

DARPA OpFires Program

DARPA’s OpFires program aims to develop and demonstrate a novel ground-launched missile system equipped with hypersonic tactical boost glide vehicle that can penetrate modern enemy air defenses and rapidly and precisely engage critical time-sensitive targets in contested environments.

The first two phases of the program focus on the propulsion technologies required to deliver diverse payloads a variety of ranges.

Phase 1 of the program was a 12-month effort focused on early development and demonstration of booster solutions that provide variable thrust propulsion across robust operational parameters in large tactical missiles. The Phase 1 contracts were awarded to Aerojet Rocketdyne, Exquadrum, and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) in 2018.

Since the Phase 1 contract award, the three companies have made critical discoveries in advanced rocket motor technology for the OpFires upper stage, completing more than 30 motor trials from subscale through full size. These advances put the program on track for booster critical design review in late 2020.

Exquadrum completed a full-scale, full-duration test fire on Sept. 19, 2019, which marked the performer’s culminating event for OpFires Phase 1. SNC completed its Phase 1 testing in October, and Aerojet Rocketdyne completed six subscale tests in August.

The OpFires program reached a major program milestone in late 2019 with the completion of the booster preliminary design review of the two-stage tactical missile system. Phase 2 of the OpFires program will mature designs and demonstrate performance with hot/static fire tests targeted for late 2020.

Phase 3 of the OpFires program will focus on weapon system integration and aims to develop an operational system design leveraging propulsion systems concepts developed under the first two phases of the program. Phase 3 will conclude with integrated end-to-end flight tests scheduled to begin in 2022.

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