Air Force to Invest Heavily in Hypersonic Aircraft

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

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.

Masiello said past failures were opportunities to better understand the technology, and a necessary part of the test-and-evaluation process.

“Within an S&T environment, we have to protect the opportunity to fail or else you’re not going to make any real progress,” Masiello said. “In early R&D and S&T, there are going to be failures.”

The success of the fourth test proved that this type of futuristic technology is real, Masiello said.

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.”

Topics: Armaments, Gun and Missile, Science and Engineering Technology, Test and Evaluation

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