Hypersonics—flight at five times the speed of sound (3,600 mph and above)—promises to revolutionize military affairs in the same fashion that stealth did a generation ago, and the turbojet engine did a generation before. By fundamentally redefining the technical means of power projection, the US can circumvent challenges facing the present force
Hypersonic Weapons and US National Security : A 21st Century Breakthrough (34 pages) By Dr. Richard P. Hallion and Maj Gen Curtis M. Bedke, USAF (Ret.) with Marc V. Schanz for the The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies
Though piloted, inhabited aircraft making routine use of hypersonics are still years away, all evidence shows hypersonic weapons capable of launch from aircraft, surface vehicles, ships, and submarines are now within a decade of operational fielding, with aerospace industry claiming this is possible in half that time—provided the United States makes a necessary commitment to steady, disciplined investment to realize this technology.
Hypersonic weapons offer advantage in four broad areas for US combat forces. They can project striking power at range without falling victim to increasingly sophisticated defenses; they compress the shooter-to-target window, and open new engagement opportunities; they rise to the challenge of addressing numerous types of strikes; and they enhance future joint and combined operations. Within each of these themes are other advantages which, taken together, redefine military power projection in the face of an increasingly unstable and dangerous world.
Hypersonic weapon technologies are surprisingly close to maturity. As such, we must commit to sustained hypersonic research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) efforts leading to technology transition, and cultivate programs designed to improve our combat power and capability. Those efforts must be driven by focused and achievable weapons programs that provide our military steadily improving capabilities over the next decades. We must break from old habits of overly aggressive, expensive failures and lack of follow on to our successes in this field. Government and military leaders with vision will need to work with the service laboratories, industry, and academia to achieve these goals
At hypersonic speeds, aircraft and other vehicles require protection from potentially destructive melting and structural burn-throughs, and from flight loadings caused by thermal expansion and structural distortion. Just a few seconds’ exposure to a hot hypersonic airflow can destroy a conventional aluminum or composite structure airplane or missile. Hypersonic vehicles require high-temperature materials—nickel alloys, graphite based composites, and ceramics—coupled with shaping that minimizes the destructive effects of sustained blowtorch-like heating.
Hypersonic strike holds a great deal of potential to transform airpower in the 21st century, and could revolutionize military affairs by offering more effective, inexpensive, and low-risk approaches to counter opponents attempting to foil US forces via anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) technology. Hypersonic weapon advances afford long-term potential to address “pop-up” threats requiring rapid response, threats often outside the purview of the present US aircraft and munitions inventory.
Specifically, hypersonic weapons will largely solve time and distance challenges that often bedevil less responsive weapons, like conventional cruise missiles. The US has made great strides building highly capable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaisance (ISR), and command and control (C2) networks to enable global vigilance across military operations. The introduction of hypersonic weapons now affords the ability to more thoroughly exploit engagement opportunities with these networks, as it does no good to identify a target without the means to strike it. The speed of hypersonic weapons allows development of better targeting solutions, enabling commanders more opportunity to assess targets correctly and accurately, and then act. The speed of a hypersonic weapon greatly compresses the so-called “find, fix, track, target, engage, and assess” (F2T2EA) process, enabling US commanders the ability to penetrate an opponent’s decision making process, and as a result, rapidly put an adversary on the defensive.
What Hypersonics Offer
Hypersonic weapons offer several advantages for America’s combat forces and those of its global friends and partners, facilitating operations in difficult threat environments, holding targets at greater risk, and enabling the striking power of legacy air assets.
Hypersonics afford unprecedented rapid reach: The driving reason why the US and its potential adversaries are pursuing this capability is its potential to shrink the “time to target” window. At over a mile per second or even faster, a hypersonic missile is, at a minimum, six times swifter than a conventional cruise missile. This enables a more effective intelligence and targeting cycle when dealing with targets that previously could not be held at risk for long, due to weapons constraints.
Hypersonics afford global target access: A theater-ranging hypersonic missile will reach a target 1,000 miles distant within 17 minutes or less. Once hypersonic weapons are fielded, the lessons from their operations could inform future efforts. A hypersonic intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) system could one day reach an area of interest faster than a satellite could be repositioned, and overflying contested airspace with a great degree of survivability.
Hypersonics provide “fourth dimension” effects: Hypersonic warfare is, in effect, time warfare. A hypersonic weapon compresses a foe’s decision-making window, effectively enabling the hypersonic attacker to get inside an adversary’s command, control, and battle management cycle. This will go a long way towards solidifying US command and control superiority in numerous potential scenarios, as a result.
Hypersonics offset air defenses: Hypersonic weapons counter adversary air defenses in two ways. First, by enabling older fourth generation aircraft to attack targets in heavily defended areas, and, second, enabling survival of the weapon itself as it seeks the target.
At the present rate, the United States is roughly four to five years from flying its next air-breathing hypersonic vehicle, the Hypersonic Air Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), which will incorporate lessons learned from the successful X-51 Air Force-NASA-Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-aerospace industry team. This effort will attempt to achieve what is known as Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 6. This means building a representative model or prototype system that is successfully tested in a relevant or simulated operational environment, a milestone that will help bridge the gap towards weaponization. But this program must remain on schedule if it hopes to succeed.
Meanwhile, competitors are advancing rapidly—designing, prototyping, and testing, new and capable facilities for research on this field, and establishing an educated cadre of young hypersonic professionals who will be able to develop these tools further in the years ahead. If these nations succeed in the race to field this technology, the US risks falling behind in our ability to solve the A2/AD problem, and thus in our ability to prevail in a future confrontation.
The report recommends accelerating the development schedule for hypersonic weapons and boosting the funding.