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Air Force Looking at Ways to Weaponize Hypersonic Tech

by John Reed on March 16, 2011

The technology being tested out in the Air Force’s X-51A Waverider hypersonic missile platform may soon shift from far-out tech to becoming an actual weapon, service officials revealed this week.

“There are a number of initiatives and plans in the works,” to shift “the technologies that are in the X-51A to start transitioning those technologies to a more weapons friendly design,” said Charlie Brink, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s X-51A program manager during a March 15 call with bloggers.

While none of these plans have been fleshed out into an official program of record to weaponize the X-51A, it could mean that we see a new generation of hypersonic weapons developed using the technology proven by the Waverider.

One example of this is the fact that the Air Force may look at shrinking certain parts found in the X-51A such as the engine control computer. Right now, the aircraft uses the same one found on the F-22. However, this is a bit overkill according to Brink, who described it as “bigger box and more robust computing capability” than needed to help guide a vehicle like the Waverider.

Instead, the service would like to see parts like that get smaller, freeing up more space for fuel, sensors and stuff that goes bang; like, you know, warheads.

“Those are the kind of technologies that we would like to start working on and integrating into a hypersonic demonstrator down the road,” said Brink.

He then confirmed that there is R&D money socked away to start working on how to do just that.

Eventually, the Air Force will decide whether or not to modify the X-51A airframe or use its technology as the basis for a new vehicle, he added. The service has a road map on how to come to this decision, he said.

Many have speculated that hypersonic vehicles like the X-51A could be used as a sort of super cruise missile to fulfill the Air Force’s requirement for a conventional weapon that can strike any target on earth from the continental U.S. in a matter of minutes or hours after the target is ID’d.

The Air Force is prepping for the second ever live-fire test shot of the X-51A on March 22. Last year, the X-51A took a 140 second flight at speeds up to Mach 5. That flight was terminated before the Waverider could reach its planned speed of Mach 6 due to design flaws that we’ll go into tomorrow here at DT.


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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

GEEWHIZ March 16, 2011 at 4:40 pm

"Air Force Looking at Ways to Weaponize Hypersonic Tech"




jeff m March 19, 2011 at 1:33 am

lol you read my mind


Jacob March 16, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Isn't the Air Force already strapped for cash as it is? I'm thinking development of hypersonic missiles is going to have to be put on the back burner for a while.


Oblat March 16, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Desperately Wanted:

Rational For Existing.
Immature technology facing funding cuts as nation can no longer support.
Needs rational for existing. Anything that can be done in 2.1 minutes with
no payload considered. Must pass the laugh test.
No contractors please.

Contact DARPA


William C. March 16, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Unless everybody is willing to pay up for a supersonic stealth bomber, a subsonic stealth design with supersonic or hypersonic cruise missiles is the better option.

Presuming we shift away from getting involved in costly 3rd world "nation-building" operations in the future, there is going to be a renewed focus on the ability of the USAF and USN to project power.


chaos0xomega March 16, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Agreed, although I will point out that with this thing, you wouldn't even need a stealth design, a B-52 is more than adequate as a launch platform for something that is ultimately intended to be an intercontinental land based cruise missile capable of hitting anywhere on the planet within 30 minutes of launch.


William C. March 16, 2011 at 11:28 pm

Personally I believe we can get the speed and a large payload. But I doubt we'll be able to design these cruise missiles with intercontinental range.


jeff m March 19, 2011 at 1:36 am

You just have to fly fast enough to jump out of the atmosphere for a few minutes, when there’s no friction fuel doesn’t matter as much, just what speed you can get up to. Look at the fins, it was designed for reentry.


Wells March 16, 2011 at 6:07 pm

I personally think it is a good idea because everyone else is creating new stealth fighters and weapons we should have a new and efficient weapon as well.


ziv March 16, 2011 at 6:54 pm

Weaponizing? Heck, at Mach 6, who needs a warhead?
Only slightly joking, can you imagine the kinetic shock effect from getting hit with a hypersonic vehicle that weighs 4000 pounds empty? Then add on the effects of any unburned fuel…


Thomas L. Nielsen March 17, 2011 at 2:54 am

Rick Robinson's First Law of space combat: something hitting at 3 km/sec (roughly mach 10) delivers kinetic energy broadly equal to its own mass in TNT. Even if "only" mach 6, I agree with you completely. Forget the warhead and let kinetic energy do the job.

Regards & all,

Thomas L. Nielsen


STemplar March 17, 2011 at 3:36 am

Provided the 'target' is a single object. If the target is actually column of vehicles, or an airfield, or railway junction, then a warhead with a sub munition dispenser might be more useful. Perhaps a purpose built penetrator for a hardened facility.


Taxandrian March 17, 2011 at 6:19 am

At mach 6, the dispersal for a submunition dispenser would be far to great…


Kevin March 17, 2011 at 6:32 am

Not if they were smart submunitions

Will March 17, 2011 at 1:43 pm

If the target was aerial or an air defense system, at sea or on land, the KE would be enough by itself. Especially if the missile is designed to break up before impact. The pieces would be a sort of submunition.


Marc Verdi March 17, 2011 at 12:37 am

Why hasn't the USAF replaced these shitty bombers with heavy-lift/high-bypass airframes????


And I do NOT work for either. :-)


siconik March 17, 2011 at 3:00 am

If it ain't broke…


blight March 17, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Yup, just wait for attrition to do its job. Peacetime or wartime.


Belesari March 17, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Because they are some of the best bombers in existence and they dont cost a billion dollars a airframe and 100 mil a year to keep flying in their hightech airconditioned hangers.

And we have tons of spare parts.

There is litteraly nothing wrong with the B-52's. Yes they are old but they are very reliable and can carry one hell of a load for one hell of a ways.

Stealthy, $1,000,000,000.00, goes mach 2.5 and has the maintanence issues of a queen.

When you have power to tear apart a countries airdefenses at will YOU DONT NEED THE NEW BOMBER.


Stix March 17, 2011 at 3:36 am

What do we have that will knockout a Chinese Stealth Aircraft ? We need to see it first..


Kevin March 17, 2011 at 6:35 am

We've had stealth aircraft for decades. Much longer than any other nation. If anyone has been working on the best way to detect stealth aircraft it's us. Not to mention "their" stealth aircraft was designed from scavenged parts of 1970's technology.


jeff m March 19, 2011 at 1:44 am

Put a cone shaped piece of fissile material in it, doesn’t even need a fuse, at mach 6 it will be its own fuse. Get it to mach 10 or 12 for better fission efficiency. I bet there is also a kinetic-fused hydrogen bomb design out there.


blight March 17, 2011 at 8:05 pm

You need submunitions that can operate at Mach 6, either enduring incredible accelerations or such short acquire-orient-attack loops that they can act in the milliseconds before they overfly their targets and miss. CEP will go up quite a bit the faster something is going…


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