Hypersonic attack drones will definitely exist, the question simply is when. The prospect of surveillance drones or armed unmanned systems catapulting through space at five times the speed of sound, is already on the radar at high levels at the Pentagon.
“You can think of autonomy and hypersonics being integrated in the way you fly vehicles and the things you might do with those vehicles,” Mike E. White, Assistant Director for Hypersonics, Office of The Undersecretary of Defense For Research and Engineering, told reporters according to a Pentagon transcript.
After all, successful attacking at hypersonic speeds will hinge upon fast-adapting, reliable guidance systems and ISR. Many newer kinds of sensors already bring an ability to help weapons course correct or change course in flight, and in future war it will be crucial to attack with the capability of doing this at hypersonic speeds.
Any kind of hypersonics-autonomy blend introduces questions about ISR and high-speed sensing, something White described as “command and control elements and the front end of the kill chain elements for targeting hypersonic strike weapons.”
Should advanced course-correcting sensing, AI-enabled autonomy and hypersonic propulsion integrate into a single system, an unprecedented and uniquely modern advantage would be achieved.
Many weapons systems already operate with high-levels of semi-autonomy and the ability to course-correct in response to changing target information. A Tomahawk missile, for example, draws upon a two-way data link and an advanced ISR-capable “loiter” ability to discern and adjust targeting while in flight. Advanced Navy SM-6 missiles, engineered with new software upgrades, operate with a dual-mode seeker enabling a fast-moving ability to adjust to moving targets in flight. The SM-6 can send its own “ping” forward without needing to rely purely upon a ship-based illuminator to identify targets. This enables the weapon to shift, re-direct or even re-target upon receiving new signal data.
The challenge now will be to perform many of these kinds of tactical functions at hypersonic speed. There are many dimensions to this, and initially the most pressing one pertains to heat. Traveling at hypersonic speeds is known to generate unprecedented levels of heat, making flight trajectory and stability very difficult to manage. This is why Pentagon researchers and weapons developers are working intensely to develop new kinds of heat-resistant materials increasingly capable of sustaining operational capacity at extremely high temperatures. Managing airflow is yet another key element of this, as moving particles surrounding an object can disrupt the equilibrium in the air surrounding a projectile or vehicle, throwing off or complicating the flight path.
Hypersonic autonomy would also bring new dimensions to high-speed attack, as it would introduce a measure of flight precision far beyond what’s known as waypoint kinds of GPS guidance. Projectiles or hypersonic missiles could not merely transit from one predetermined point to another but rather maneuver more freely to avoid defenses by synergizing sensor targeting with guidance systems. For instance, an autonomous hypersonic weapon or drone could discern, and then avoid, an interceptor weapon or air defense system.
Kris Osborn is Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
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