The Air Force will likely have high-speed, long-range, and deadly hypersonic weapons by the 2020s, delivering kinetic energy-destroying power capable of traveling thousands of miles to enemy targets within five. times the speed of sound.
“The speed of the air makes them much more resistant and difficult to knock down. If you can put enough fuel in them, it will give them good range. You go about a mile per second, so if you put in 1000 seconds of fuel you can go 1000 miles – which gives you a lot of ability to stand, “said Greg Zacharias, chief army scientist. from the air, during an interview with Scout Warrior.
Although scientists from the Air Force and the Pentagon have made much progress so far, there is still a long way to go before aerial vehicles and hypersonic weapons are technologically ready to be operational under such circumstances. of fight.
“Right now we’re focused on maturing the technology, so all the elements, guidance, navigation control, materials science, ammunition, heat transfer and everything in between,” said added Zacharias.
Zacharias explained that, based on the current trajectory, the Air Force will likely have initial hypersonic weapons ready in the 2020s. A little further into the 2030s, the service may have a hypersonic drone. or ISR vehicle (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance).
“I don’t know yet if this is being considered to be survivable or returnable. Maybe that’s a way, ”Zacharias explained.
A very high speed drone or ISR platform would allow aerial vehicles to enter and exit enemy territory quickly and return relevant images without being detected by enemy radar or shot down.
However, by the 2040s the Air Force could very well have a hypersonic ISR platform capable of carrying both surveillance and delivery weapons, he added.
A weapon traveling at hypersonic speeds, naturally, would better allow offensive missile strikes to destroy targets such as enemy ships, buildings, air defenses and even drones and fixed or rotary wing aircraft depending on the technology. guidance available.
A key part of this is the fact that weapons traveling at hypersonic speeds would present serious complications for targets hoping to defend against them – they would only have seconds to respond or defend against an imminent or imminent attack.
Hypersonic weapons will most likely be designed as “kinetic energy” strike weapons, meaning that they will not use explosives but instead rely on sheer speed and the force of impact to destroy targets.
“They have great kinetic energy to pass through hardened targets. You can swap smaller ammo charges for higher kinetic energy. It’s really basically speed and range. Mach 5 is five times the speed of sound, ”he explained.
The speed of sound may vary depending on the altitude; at ground level it is about 1,100 feet per second. As a result, if a weapon is designed with 2000 seconds of fuel, it can travel up to 2000 miles to a target.
“If you can take control at a low level and keep Mach 5, you can do pretty long distances,” Zacharias said.
While the potential defensive uses of hypersonic weapons, interceptors, or vehicles are by no means beyond consideration, the main effort at the moment is to design offensive weapons capable of rapidly destroying enemy targets at great distances. .
Some hypersonic vehicles could be developed with what Zacharias called “boost glide” technology, which means that they shoot into the skies above Earth’s atmosphere and then use decent speed to hit targets like the vehicle. back to school.
For example, Zacharias cited the 1950s experimental booster vehicle, the X-15, which aimed to shoot 67 miles into the sky before returning to Earth.
China’s hypersonic weapons tests
Zacharias responded to recent news about China’s claimed test of a hypersonic weapon, a development that has worried Pentagon leaders and threat analysts.
While some Pentagon officials have said the Chinese have made progress in developing hypersonic weapons, Zacharias stressed that most details about the effort are classified and therefore not publicly available.
Nonetheless, if China had long range, high speed hypersonic weapons – it could have a dramatic impact on the circumstances known in Pentagon circles and access / area denial.
This phenomenon, discussed in A2 / AD, involves cases in which potential adversaries use long-range sensors and precision weapons to deny the United States any ability to operate near certain strategically important areas such as closer from an enemy coastline. Hypersonic weapons, for example, could contain slower-moving Navy aircraft carriers.
An April 27 report on the Washington Free Range citing Pentagon officials as saying China successfully tested a new high-speed maneuver warhead last week.
“The test of the DF-ZF development hypersonic glide vehicle was monitored after it was launched on Friday atop a ballistic missile fired from the Wuzhai missile launch center in central China, officials familiar with test reports, “the Washington Free Beacon report said. . “The moving glider, traveling several thousand kilometers an hour, was tracked by satellites as it flew west along the edge of the atmosphere to an impact zone in the western part of the country. ”
Scientists from the Air Force’s research laboratory and the Pentagon’s research arm are working on the construction of a new hypersonic air vehicle capable of traveling at speeds up to Mach 5 while carrying systems of guide and other materials.
Senior Air Force officials have said the service wants to build on the X-51 Waverider’s successful hypersonic flight test at 60,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean in May 2013.
The Air Force and DARPA, the Pentagon’s research entity, plan to have a new and improved hypersonic air vehicle by 2023.
The X-51 was really a proof of concept test designed to demonstrate that a Scram jet engine could take off from an airplane and go hypersonic.
The scramjet was able to exceed Mach 5 until it ran out of fuel. It was a very successful test of an airborne hypersonic weapons system, Air Force officials said.
The successful test was particularly welcome news for the developers of the Air Force, as the X-51 Waverider had previously failed tests.
The 2013 test flight, which turned out to be the longest respiratory hypersonic flight of all time, concluded a $ 300 million technology demonstration program from 2004, officials said. Air Force.
A B-52H Stratofortress carried the X-51A on its wing before it was released to 50,000 feet and accelerated to Mach 4.8 in 26 seconds. As the scramjet climbed to 60,000 feet, it accelerated to Mach 5.1.
The X-51 was also able to return data before crashing into the ocean – the type of information currently used by scientists to design a more complete hypersonic vehicle.
“After depleting its fuel supply by 240 seconds, the vehicle continued to send back telemetry data until it splashed into the ocean and was destroyed as intended,” according to an Army statement. ‘air. “Upon impact, 370 seconds of data was collected from the experiment.”
This Air Force, the next-generation effort, is not just about creating another jet, but rather designing a much more complete hypersonic air vehicle, scientists from the service explained.
Hypersonic flight requires technology designed to enable materials capable of operating at very high temperatures created by hypersonic speeds. They also need guidance systems that can operate at these speeds, Air Force officials said.
The new air vehicle effort will progress alongside an Air Force hypersonic weapons program. While today’s cruise missiles travel at speeds of up to 600 miles per hour, hypersonic weapons will be able to reach speeds from Mach 5 to Mach 10, Air Force officials have said. .
The new air vehicle could be used to transport sensors, equipment or weapons in the future, depending on how technology evolves.
Additionally, Pentagon officials have said hypersonic planes are expected to be much cheaper than traditional turbine engines because they require fewer parts.
For example, senior Air Force officials said hypersonic flight could speed up a five-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles to about 30 minutes. That being said, the speed of acceleration required for hypersonic flight may rule out or at least challenge the scientific possibility that humans can travel at this speed – a question that has yet to be fully determined.