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Air Force Hypersonic Weapons Face Critical Tests

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Air Force expects to see significant progress in its pursuit of hypersonic weapons.

In May, a U.S.-Australia scramjet will perform a flight test from the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai. The HiFiRE (Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation) program has seen two previous successful tests, reaching speeds five times the speed of sound.

In June, the Air force will hold an “industry day” for companies to learn how they can help the service achieve its goal of a performing a high-speed strike weapon demonstration by fiscal year 2017.

And in August, the X-51 test vehicle will make its third flight test. The first took place in May 2010, when the demonstrator reached Mach 5 speed but fell short of its goal of a 300-second flight. The second test occurred in June 2011 and had to be cut short when the scramjet engine failed to transition to full power.

All of these efforts go a long way toward gathering the information needed to design a successful long-range strike capability, said John Leugers, principal aerospace engineer in the munitions directorate at the Air Force Research Laboratory.

The Air Force is seeking to develop missiles that can reach targets anywhere in the world within minutes. Several more test flights are planned over the next several years. Each experiment gives researchers more data about issues such as aerodynamics, engine performance and heating.

Meanwhile, studies such as Technology for Responsive Precision Air Land Sea Strike, or TRESPALS2, are looking at “how fast is fast enough for high-speed weapons,” according to a briefing Leugers gave April 18 at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual science and engineering technology conference.

The need for hypersonic cruise missiles is based on an assessment of threats on the horizon, he said.

“You’re going to need long-range,” Leugers said. “Trust me.”

A great deal of work still has to be done on advanced guidance systems as well as tailoring warheads to specific targets. The airframes, which would be expected to travel more than 500 miles, also need to be lightweight and able to withstand high temperatures, Leugers said.

Tests with X-51 also are informing research into creating a hypersonic spy aircraft that could cruise at speeds greater than Mach 4 but still take off and land on a runway. Leugers described the investigation of such an aircraft as more in the exploration stage. Challenges remain, including how to make a potential platform affordable.

Surprisingly, studies have shown that a hypersonic missile may not be as expensive as initially thought, Leugers said.

The Defense Department supports these efforts. Initially, the Pentagon wanted the Air Force to be able to perform a weapon demonstration in 2014. The Air Force is hoping to accomplish the feat now by the 2017-2018 timeframe, though Pentagon officials at the conference said they are still holding out hope it could happen in 2016.

Comments

Re: Air Force Hypersonic Weapons Face Critical Tests

I am delighted to learn of the successes of the hypersonic program  and am hopeful that further tests will be successful as well in fielding these weapons in the future.
The threat of China is real and though I do not foresee a full  scale armed conflict with China I believe that a new 'cold war' is developing with an arms race beginning now between China and the US. China is not alone in countries that the US must worry about. Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and Russia are engaged in modernizing and growing their military might also. Anti-American setiment is growing throughout the world.
The US must remain a leader in weapons systems technology as their are several threats against us. For those who are not supportive of military programs, they should be reminded that eventually the technologies used for military applications migrate to the consumer level. Most importantly is the fact that the United States cannot lose its technological supremacy to a nation like China and this can result easily as China has committed itself into modernizing and expanding its military and space programs and has declared that the weaponization of space is permissable. Couple this with the fact that China graduates far more engineering students than the US and its nationalistic environment and we find that the US must be committed to developing cutting edge technologies. US military programs in research and development also keep Americans employed. The only complaint I have is that defense contractors MUST control costs and not view the American taxpayer (through the government) as a cash cow with excessive costs overruns that occurs frequently as in the case of the JSF and the Gerald Ford class aircraft carrier. Defense contractors should adopt a atmosphere of national pride like their Chinese, Iranian, Pakistani and Russian counterparts.
Halsey Bartlett Jr at 4/21/2012 11:19 AM

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