COURTLAND — Portions of a high-tech weapon system that is critical to the nation’s defense will be assembled and tested in Courtland, officials said Monday.

Lockheed Martin announced it will construct a 77,000-square-foot “hypersonic manufacturing facility” that will generate 72 jobs over three years, with more jobs possible after that.

The facility launches a new chapter in the story of Courtland, said Marillyn Hewson, president and CEO of Lockheed Martin.

She said hypersonic weapons will change how the U.S. and its allies respond to conflict. She said the new facility will double the number of employees Lockheed has at its Courtland site, which opened in 1993.

Hewson said workers will need science, technology, engineering and mathematics training and that Lockheed plans to invest in STEM and apprenticeship programs.

Hypersonic refers to weapons that travel more than five times the speed of sound and are used for offense and defense, Vice Admiral Johnny Wolfe of the U.S. Navy said.

He and Lt. General Neil Thurgood, director of hypersonics for the U.S. Army, and Yvette Weber, deputy director of the Air Force Armament Directorate, said the military has successfully tested the weapons, and the plant in Courtland is part of the process of moving to production.

Thurgood said other countries, including some of America’s most dangerous adversaries, are working on the same weapon technology, which is why it’s important to put the technology in production.

The U.S. Army last month awarded Lockheed a $347 million contract to produce and develop the long-range hypersonic prototype weapon system.

"This land-based, truck-launched system is armed with hypersonic missiles that can travel well over 3,800 miles per hour," Thurgood wrote this month in an Army publication. "They can reach the top of the Earth’s atmosphere and remain just beyond the range of air and missile defense systems until they are ready to strike, and by then it's too late to react. Extremely accurate, ultrafast, maneuverable and survivable, hypersonics can strike anywhere in the world within minutes."

U.S. Army Chief of Staff James McConville said Monday’s announcement was a great day for Alabama and the nation because “we live in time of great power and competition” and America must “ensure it is never outranged or outgunned.”

“Winning matters and hypersonic will help us win,” he said.

Thurgood said hypersonic weapons, which can reach Alabama from California in less than an hour, should be ready for deployment by 2023.

Construction of the plant in Courtland, which has a population of 590 and a median household income of $35,991, is already underway.

Eric Scherff, vice president of hypersonic strike work at Lockheed Martin, said the 72 jobs will be “very technical but hands-on.”

He said workers will be connecting missile components and running tests to make sure they are operating as designed.

Scherff said Lockheed has an apprenticeship program that will allow high school graduates equipped with technical skills to get a job and people with two-year technical degrees to work in the plant. He said wages will be “very competitive and attractive.”

Scherff said the initial 72 workers will be assembling a prototype system, but he expects “full-scale production” and more jobs at the Courtland plant once military officials demonstrate the missile's capabilities.

“This is just the beginning,” he said.

Lockheed is locating its management and engineering workforce for these programs in Huntsville, where another 200 jobs will be added, according to Gov. Kay Ivey.

“Both Courtland and Huntsville will gain new jobs, which is always welcome news," Ivey said in a written statement. "I am proud and confident that Alabamians will help advance Lockheed Martin’s goals as we begin working toward the advancements of the future.”

U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, attended the groundbreaking and said the goal of the weapons is to prevent war.

“I want our adversaries to be terrified by the hypersonic weapons they will soon face from the U.S. Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. If our enemies are terrified, they will hesitate to start wars, and that of course, is exactly what we prefer,” Aderholt said. “But if a war is started, the work being done by this civilian and military partnership in Alabama, as seen here today, will help us make it a short war, and one which ends on our terms.”

Lockheed officials did not disclose the amount of the investment in the Courtland facility.

"On behalf of Lockheed Martin, we are honored to expand our presence in northern Alabama and watch as the next cohort of innovators take advanced defense technology to levels we once thought were impossible," said Scott Keller, vice president and general manager for Strategic and Missile Defense for Lockheed Martin.

Dynetics last month won a $351.6 million Defense Department contract to develop the hypersonic glide bodies for the system, which are the portions of the system that break away from the booster rocket after launch. Much of its contract will be performed in Huntsville, according to the company.

In a report issued Monday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office outlined both the opportunities and challenges in the development of hypersonic weapons.

Among the opportunities:

• Its speed, maneuverability and high altitude allow it to penetrate anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems.

• Its speed allows it to strike targets that are vulnerable for only a limited time.

• Unlike a traditional missile in which a target must be determined prior to launch, hypersonic weapons could be maneuvered during flight.

• Hypersonic technology with piloted vehicles could one day have commercial applications.

The GAO report said the challenges, however, are significant:

• Because of their speed, the exterior temperature of hypersonic weapons can exceed 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, requiring advanced materials that will protect interior electronics.

• There are few U.S. locations for testing the hypersonic weapons.

• Improvements in control and guidance are needed to ensure the accuracy of the weapons and to avoid a loss of control of a launched weapon.

Lockheed Martin acquired 660 acres in Courtland in 1993 and began construction that year of nine buildings on the site, which was a U.S. Army Air Corps base during World War II.

The company has had several programs at the site, but the facility initially manufactured Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) test vehicles and case assemblies for the U.K. Ministry of Defence's Paveway III munitions.

— deangelo@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2469. Twitter @DD_Deangelo.

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