The Air Force is finishing engineering details on an aggressive plan to prototype, test and deploy hypersonic weapons on an expedited schedule -- to speed up an ability to launch high-impact, high-speed attacks at Mach. 5 - five times the speed of sound.
Recent thinking from senior Air Force weapons developers had held that US hypersonic weapons might first be deployable by the early 2020s. Hypersonic drones for attack or ISR missions, by extension, were thought to be on track to emerge in the 2030s and 2040s, senior service officials have told Warrior Maven.
Now, an aggressive new Air Force hypersonic weapons prototyping and demonstration effort is expected to change this time frame in a substantial way.
“I am working with the team on acceleration and I am very confident that a significant acceleration is possible,” said Dr. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.”
The effort involves two separate trajectories, including the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) and a Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW).
“The Air Force is using prototyping to explore the art-of-the-possible and to advance these technologies to a capability as quickly as possible. We continue to partner with DARPA on two science and technology flight demonstration programs: Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept and Tactical Boost Glide,” Maj. Emily Grabowski, Air Force spokeswoman, told Warrior Maven.
A "boost glide" hypersonic weapon is one that flies on an upward trajectory up into the earth's atmosphere before using the speed of its descent to hit and destroy targets, senior officials said.
The Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW) effort involves using mature technologies which have not yet been integrated for air-launched delivery, Grabowski added.
"The ARRW effort will “push the art-of-the-possible” by leveraging the technical base established by the Air Force/DARPA partnership," she said. "The two systems have different flight profiles, payload sizes, and provide complementary offensive capabilities."
The Air Force recently took a major step forward in the process by awarding an HCSW prototyping deal to Lockheed Martin.
As the most senior Air Force acquisition leader who works closely with the services' Chief of Staff, Roper was clear not to pinpoint an as-of-yet undetermined timeline. He did, however, praise the hypersonic weapons development team and say the particulars of the acceleration plan would emerge soon. Roper talked about speeding up hypersonic weapons within the larger context of ongoing Air Force efforts to streamline and expedite weapons acquisition overall.
Roper explained the rationale for not waiting many more years for a "100-percent" solution if a highly impactful "90-percent" solution can be available much sooner. Often referred to as "agile acquisition" by Air Force senior leaders, to include service Secretary Heather Wilson, fast-tracked procurement efforts seek quicker turn around of new software enhancements, innovations and promising combat technologies likely to have a substantial near-term impact. While multi-year developmental programs are by no means disappearing, the idea is to circumvent some of the more bureaucratic and cumbersome elements of the acquisition process.
The Air Force, and Pentagon, need hypersonic weapons very quickly, officials explain, and there is broad consensus that the need for hypersonic weapons is, at the moment, taking on a new urgency.
A weapon traveling at hypersonic speeds, naturally, would better enable offensive missile strikes to destroy targets such and enemy ships, buildings, air defenses and even drones and fixed-wing or rotary aircraft depending upon the guidance technology available.
A key component of this is the fact that weapons traveling at hypersonic speeds would present serious complications for targets hoping to defend against them – they would have only seconds with which to respond or defend against an approaching or incoming attack.
Along these lines, the advent of hypersonic weapons is a key reason why some are questioning the future survivability of large platforms such as aircraft carriers. How are ship-based sensors, radar and layered defenses expected to succeed in detecting tracking and intercepting or destroying an approaching hypersonic weapon traveling at five-times the speed of sound.
Hypersonic weapons will quite likely be engineered as “kinetic energy” strike weapons, meaning they will not use explosives but rather rely upon sheer speed and the force of impact to destroy targets.
A super high-speed drone or ISR platform would better enable air vehicles to rapidly enter and exit enemy territory and send back relevant imagery without being detected by enemy radar or shot down.
Although potential defensive uses for hypersonic weapons, interceptors or vehicles are by no means beyond the realm of consideration, the principle effort at the moment is to engineer offensive weapons able to quickly destroy enemy targets at great distances.
Some hypersonic vehicles could be developed with what senior Air Force leaders called “boost glide” technology, meaning they fire up into the sky above the earth’s atmosphere and then utilize the speed of descent to strike targets as a re-entry vehicle.
The speed of sound can vary, depending upon the altitude; at the ground level it is roughly 1,100 feet per second. Accordingly, if a weapon is engineered with 2,000 seconds worth of fuel – it can travel up to 2,000 miles to a target, senior weapons developers have told Warrior.
While Roper did not address any specific threats, he did indicate that the acceleration is taking place within a high-threat global environment. Both Russia and China have been visibly conducting hypersonic weapons tests, leading some to raise the question as to whether the US could be behind key rivals in this area.
“We are not the only ones interested in hypersonics,” Roper told reporters.
A report cited in The National Interest cites a report from The Diplomat outlining Chinese DF-17 hypersonic missile tests in November of last year.
During the tests - “a hypersonic glide vehicle detached from the missile during the reentry phase and flew approximately 1,400 kilometers to a target,” The Diplomat report states.
Also, Pentagon is fast-tracking sensor and command and control technology development to improve defenses against fast-emerging energy hypersonic weapons threats from major rivals, US Missile Defense Agency officials said earlier this year.
This article originally appeared on Warrior Maven.
Image: U.S. Air Force