Pentagon leaders see hypersonic flight of weapons and aircraft as essential to future military superiority, citing it as a revolutionary technology that could enable U.S. forces to thwart sophisticated next-generation integrated air defense systems.
“Integrated air defense systems are getting to be very hard. Electronic warfare is part of the answer but part of the answer is speed. If they can’t catch you – you can get in and do your strike,” said Al Shaffer, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense, Research and Engineering.
Shaffer mentioned Syrian, Russian and Chinese air defense systems as among the more technologically advanced systems, suggesting that hypersonic weaponry could be key in the future should the U.S. need to go up against these countries.
While today’s cruise missiles travel at speeds up to 600 miles per hour, hypersonic weapons will be able to reach speeds of Mach 5 to Mach 10.
Shaffer mentioned hypersonic flight alongside electronic warfare and autonomy as areas of potential revolutionary technological change. As a result, it needs to be an area of continued prototyping, experimentation and emphasis, he said.
He cited four tests of hypersonic technology, highlighting that two of the tests were successful. In particular, he referred to the test of the X-51 waverider over the Pacific Ocean in May of last year wherein a scramjet accelerated to Mach 5.1.
The May 1 test flight, which wound up being the longest air-breathing hypersonic flight ever, wrapped up a $300 million technology demonstration program beginning in 2004, according to an Air Force statement.
Mounted to a B-52H Stratofortress, the X-51A was released at approximately 50,000 feet and accelerated to Mach 4.8 in about 26 seconds powered by a solid rocket booster. After separating from the booster, The cruiser’s supersonic combustion, or scramjet, engine accelerated the aircraft to Mach 5.1 at 60,000 feet, according to Air Force officials.
Shaffer referred to the most recent test as a breakthrough.
“For the second time, we have shown that a scramjet can ignite and get positive acceleration. That is a huge deal. That means we are now beginning to understand hypersonics,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer also added that hypersonic aircraft are expected to be much less expensive than traditional turbine engines because they require fewer parts.
Shaffer did not specifically address China’s recent test of a hypersonic missile, but he did say the U.S. should work to make sure it is the global leader in hypersonic technology.
“We, the U.S., do not want to be the second country to understand how to control hypersonics,” he said.