The United States Air Force has begun to spearhead an effort to develop the first hypersonic cruise missile, a weapon that could complement other weapons already in development. The Air Force has begun to seek information from industry about the technology and the goal is to launch a new prototyping program in the near future, DefenseNews has reported.
Hypersonic systems would be far faster than existing weapons and can fly five times the speed of sound or faster – which could make them harder to detect, while this new class of weapons could be even more maneuverable in flight. The weapons could act as deterrents and could respond to a conflict from hundreds of miles away.
The Department of Defense (DoD) is actually hedging its bets and has called for a complementary mix of both boost-glide hypersonic weapons, which have a long-range; and air-breathing cruise missiles that are configurable with a wider range of platforms including fifth-generation fighters such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
"At this point, we don't want to see an either/or; we actually want to see both technologies pursued," said Mark Lewis, the Defense Department's director of defense research and engineering for modernization, as reported by Military.com.
Last month, the Air Force issued a sources sought notification for a "Future Hypersonics Program" that called up companies to submit information for air-breathing conventional hypersonic cruise missiles that could be launched from bombers as well as fighter jets. The responses will allow the Air Force to determine whether or not such a project is viable. This will determine whether it is something that should receive funding, but also to determine how quickly such a weapon can be fielded.
"In the case of how fast we could go with the scramjet technology getting into cruise missile and missionizing it, I think we can go fast," Will Roper, the Air Force acquisition executive told reporters April 30. "I don't know how fast — that's why we're reaching out to the street. But given how far scramjet technology has matured, I'd expect that we'll be able to go pretty quickly on this."
The Air Force has called upon companies with a variety of expertise including sustained air-breathing hypersonic propulsion, such as ramjet, scramjet, or dual-mode engines. In addition, the Air Force has sought those companies with experience in stable hypersonic aerodynamics; aero-thermal protection systems; solid rocket motors; warhead and missile integration; as well as advanced hypersonic guidance, navigation, and control.
The Future Hypersonics Program is the Air Force's second air-breathing cruise missile effort; as it is also developing a partnership with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a cruise missile called the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC). Both Raytheon-Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin-Aerojet Rocketdyne are working on competing designs in the HAWC effort. That effort was expected to fly for the time at the end of last year or early this year but has faced delays.
"Systems that operate at hypersonic speeds … offer the potential for military operations from longer ranges with shorter response times and enhanced effectiveness compared to current military systems," according to DARPA as reported by Air Force Magazine. "Such systems could provide significant payoff for future U.S. offensive strike operations, particularly as adversaries' capabilities advance."
Hypersonic has been described by Pentagon officials as not being one thing, but rather a range of capabilities that include intermediate-range, long-range; things that can be launched from ships, off trucks or from the wings of airplanes and even out of the bomb bays. It is simply put a potential game-changer.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.