JUST IN: Two Different DARPA Hypersonic Vehicles 'On Track' to Fly in 2019
Concept art: Raytheon
Two hypersonic vehicle prototypes developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force are due to fly by the end of the year, the agency’s director said May 1.
One vehicle is part of the hypersonic air-breathing weapon concept, or HAWC, program. The other is the tactical boost glide, or TBG, effort, said Steven Walker.
“We're on track for both to have flights … before the calendar year ends,” he told reporters during a breakfast meeting in Washington, D.C. However, that might be questionable because once "you actually get into the building of these things and qualifying the hardware, … things tend to slip.”
Walker said there is a chance the vehicles could fly in early 2020, but was hopeful that that would not be the case. DARPA has been working on both efforts alongside the Air Force since 2012, he noted.
“These [efforts] were focused on more tactical theater-level operations,” he said.
TBG is meant to develop an advanced boost-glide system that can be launched from a rocket, he said. The HAWC concept takes advantage of work DARPA has previously done in scramjet technology to create a system that can be self-powered after being launched from an aircraft such as a B-52. According to the agency, HAWC focuses on three technology challenge areas including air-vehicle feasibility, effectiveness and affordability.
“Two very different concepts but when you're talking hypersonics it's good to have what I consider intended redundancy because it's a hard technology making materials and propulsion systems that last in 3,000-degree Fahrenheit temperatures,” he said.
Walker said he is still unsure of which vehicle will fly first. “It's really a race between HAWC and TBG to see which one goes first,” he said.
However, a number of hurdles could potentially delay the flights, he noted. Both systems are currently in the early stages of their assembly, integration and test phases.
“You have to qualify all the hardware components [and] sometimes you run into issues with qual tests,” he said. “You got to re-qualify things, put that all together and [then] you test the whole system and you hope it all works and has been done correctly. … [There are] all sorts of things once you get into testing real hardware that you have to face down every day and beat back.”
Hypersonic vehicles — which can fly at speeds in excess of Mach 5 — have become increasingly important technology areas to the Defense Department writ large.
“It’s an area that I believe the U.S. really needs to make progress in and be a leader in,” Walker said. “From a technology standpoint, … we have led the way in hypersonics. I think some of our peer competitors though have taken that technology and turned it into capability faster than we have.”
The advantage of hypersonic vehicles is not just time of flight, but also the range that would be achieved by the high-speed vehicle just because of physics, he said.
“You also get a lot of potential maneuverability that we don't have today,” he said. It’s “a combination of all those factors [that] make it an attractive technology, which is why our adversaries are working on them.”
Walker noted that DARPA is also engaged with the Army and Navy on hypersonic-related activities.
It is currently working with the Army on a program that takes advantage of technology leveraged from the tactical boost glide effort, he said. The system — known as Operational Fires, or OpFires — is a 50/50 cost share and will give the service a ground-launched capability to penetrate modern enemy air defenses.
“It's a brand-new booster,” he said. “This new booster would allow a lot more controllability, mobility for the Army and an ability to really use the system in the most effective way versus any other existing booster that's out there.”
DAPRA is also engaged with the Navy on a study about whether or not the agency’s HAWC vehicle would be a good fit for the sea service, Walker said.
However, “that study I believe is still underway,” he said. “They have not committed to moving forward with that system.”
Topics: Emerging Technologies