US Air Force Research Lab targets first hypersonic aircraft test by 2019 and hypersonic cruise missiles by the 2020s and laser cannons on fighters in the 2030s

The head of the Air Force Research Laboratory on Sept. 16 said the first test of a hypersonic aircraft could come within five years, and the technology could be applied to cruise missiles by the 2020s.

Maj. Gen. Tom Masiello, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, said hypersonics is one of the most promising technologies the lab is working on. It is currently testing the Boeing X-51 WaveRider unmanned hypersonic vehicle.

Hypersonic planes, lasers and unmanned aircraft are all considered major aviation game changers, he said.

“Hypersonic is the technology of the future,” Masiello said during the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference at National Harbor, Maryland. “I can’t overemphasize the significance of the X-51.”

Following a successful and historic test of the X-51 last year, momentum has been growing, Masiello said. During the test, the vehicle reached speeds of Mach 5.1 and traveled 230 nautical miles in about six minutes.

When operational, a hypersonic aircraft will give the military the ability to strike time-sensitive targets and could be used in an anti-access/area-denial environment, Masiello said. Survivability in A2/AD situations is critical as the nation focuses on the Asia-Pacific region, which has a higher threat of such attacks, he said.

“[From] a survivability stand point, it’s about altitude, it’s about speed. It’s just plain physics in terms of a missile being able to intercept a cruise missile going at Mach 5 plus, up at 50,000 [or] 60,000 feet,” Masiello said. “In any A2/AD environment, regardless of the Asia Pacific or anywhere else … that ability to survive in a highly contested environment is a huge attribute.”

The test was the fourth of its kind, and followed two previous failures. Previously, the aircraft’s supersonic combustion ramjet engine — also known as a scramjet — failed to light during the second test. A fin fell off of the aircraft during the third test.

Demonstrations of an aircraft should happen within the next five years, he said. The X-51 resembles a missile and is launched from a B-52. By the 2020s, the Air Force wants to weaponize the technology to use it as a cruise missile, he added.

In the 2030s, the technology could be mature enough to be used for tactical strikes as well as for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. At this stage, the aircraft will likely be reusable and may have a short lifecycle, he said. By the 2040s, it could be combat-ready for persistent reusable strike and ISR missions, he said.

Masiello said lasers were also part of the Air Force of the future. Directed energy weapons could one day be attached to fighter jets.

“Lasers are probably one area that have been overpromised and under-delivered forever,” Masiello said.

The Air Force wants to get a high-energy laser on a fighter-sized craft by the 2030s, he said. There are a number of challenges that the service is trying to work out, he said.

“You have air flow issues, vibration issues,” he said. “It’s really all about size, weight and power and thermal managing.”

Aircraft must be able to generate enough power to deploy the laser as well as dissipate the associated heat, he said.

Masiello also mentioned strides in autonomy and unmanned technology. He stressed that the future of unmanned aviation did not mean the end of manned aviation, but rather that the two would work hand in hand.

“This [technology] has the potential to dwarf everything,” Masiello said. “When you talk about autonomy, it’s not taking the airmen out of the weapon systems, it’s building an effective manned/human machine.”

Laser Cannon turret tests now by Lockheed

Lockheed Martin, in partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and the University of Notre Dame, has demonstrated the airworthiness of a new beam control turret being developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and AFRL to give 360-degree coverage for high-energy laser weapons operating on military aircraft. A research aircraft equipped with the Aero-adaptive Aero-optic Beam Control (ABC) turret conducted eight flights in Michigan.

The Aero-adaptive Aero-optic Beam Control turret that Lockheed Martin is developing for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force Research Laboratory has completed initial flight testing. The prototype turret was tested on the University of Notre Dame’s Airborne Aero Optical Laboratory Transonic Aircraft in Michigan. (Photo: Air Force Research Laboratory.)

The ABC turret system is designed to allow high-energy lasers to engage enemy aircraft and missiles above, below and behind the aircraft. Lockheed Martin’s flow control and optical compensation technologies counteract the effects of turbulence caused by the protrusion of a turret from an aircraft’s fuselage.

All turret components met U.S. Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration airworthiness requirements.
Subsequent flight tests over the next year will demonstrate the turret in increasingly complex operations.

Navy Laser tests

A prototype, an improved version of the Laser Weapon System (LaWS), will be installed on USS Ponce for at-sea testing in the Persian Gulf, fulfilling plans announced by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert at the 2013 Sea-Air-Space Expo.

Navy leaders have made directed-energy weapons a top priority to counter what they call asymmetric threats, including unmanned and light aircraft and small attack boats that could be used to deny U.S. forces access to certain areas. High-energy lasers offer an affordable and safe way to target these threats at the speed of light with extreme precision and an unlimited magazine, experts say.

“Our nation’s adversaries are pursuing a variety of ways to try and restrict our freedom to operate,” Klunder said. “Spending about $1 per shot of a directed-energy source that never runs out gives us an alternative to firing costly munitions at inexpensive threats.”

Army Laser Truck

[] Boeing has successfully demonstrated the effectiveness of the high-energy laser mobile demonstrator (HEL MD) in maritime conditions during a testing at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, US.

Undertaken in collaboration with the US Army, the demonstration involved a HEL MD that used a 10kW high-energy laser installed on an Oshkosh military vehicle, and successfully engaged more than 150 aerial targets, including 60mm mortars and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Boeing Directed Energy Systems director Dave DeYoung said: “Under windy, rainy and foggy weather conditions in Florida, these engagements were the most challenging to date with a 10kW laser on HEL MD.

Lithium ion batteries power the HEL MD’s laser. Batteries are charged by a 60 kW diesel generator, so if the Army can keep the fuel tank full, they can shoot down incoming threats indefinitely. The system uses a telescope and infrared-based, wide field of view camera to locate and designate targets. Boeing has designed the system to be operated by a driver and an operator with a laptop and an Xbox controller. Putting it on a truck makes the system mobile, and thus much more useful in battle situations.

It only has the cost of diesel fuel. The laser system can fire repeatedly without expending valuable munitions or additional manpower.

The team plans to install a 50kW or 60kW laser on HEL MD to demonstrate counter RAM and UAV capability at the tactically significant power level.

The 50kW or 60kW is scheduled to be upgraded to a 100kW class laser in subsequent demonstrations, while the supporting thermal and power subsystems will also be upgraded to increase the effective range of the laser or decrease the required laser time on target

SOURCE – National Defense Magazine, Lockheed Martin, Office of naval research

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