Unleashing the Potential of Hypersonic Flight

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Unleashing the Potential of Hypersonic Flight

Today, the United states has clear air superiority over its great-power adversaries, Russia and China.  While the Russian Sukhoi SU-57 and the Chinese J-20 fighters are comparable to our F-22, they are just beginning to be delivered.  And while Russia has comparable ICBM and submarine fleets, neither country has the aircraft carriers, airtankers, and stealth bombers needed to project military power around the world. 

To compensate, they’ve announced progress in the embryonic field of “hypersonic weapons.”  By definition, hypersonic weapons can travel at least five times the speed of sound, without being locked into the predictable trajectories of ballistic missiles.

There are two types of hypersonic weapons emerging: hypersonic glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles. The announced Russian and Chinese weapons are all hypersonic glide vehicles.  Hypersonic glide vehicles are placed on top of rockets, launched, and then glide on top of the atmosphere. They are like airplanes with no engines on them, which can fly above 100,000 feet.  China’s DF-ZF boost-glide weapon, Russia's Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, and the American TBG and “Hacksaw” projects, discussed in our July 2018 issue, are all hypersonic glide vehicles. They use aerodynamic forces to maintain stability, to fly along, and to maneuver.  And, unlike a ballistic missile, a hypersonic glide vehicle is somewhat maneuverable. That means it can keep its target a secret up until the last few seconds of its flight.

“Hypersonic cruise missiles” such as America’s Arrow and HAWC projects are intended to be powered all the way to their targets using so-called SCRAMJETs.  SCRAMJETs use the vehicle’s forward motion to shovel air at supersonic speeds into the engine, causing thrust. One big problem with scramjets, is their inability to operate at slower speeds. That means, a booster stage typically carries them to a velocity and altitude where the scramjet engine can take over.  Hypersonic cruise missiles are very fast and maneuverable. And they can fly at altitudes up to 100,000 feet.  Defenders may have just a few minutes from the time a trans-Atlantic attack is launched until the time it strikes.  And the hypersonic cruise missile can maneuver just like a conventional cruise missile, keeping defenders guessing about its intentions.

Until now, no one has been able to build a reliable hypersonic engine for cruise missiles or other applications, but that’s quickly changing.  After passing a preliminary design review by the European Space Agency (or ESA) a new air-breathing hypersonic engine is finally ready for a major round of testing in the next 18 months...

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