Secretive DoD Drone Dodges Defenses At Hypersonic Speed: A New Weapon In America’s Superfast Arms Race With China

Secretive DoD Drone Dodges Defenses At Hypersonic Speed: A New Weapon In America’s Superfast Arms Race With China

Jeffrey Lin and Peter Singer, writing recently in Popular Science, begin, “on August 25, an explosion tore through the southern Alaskan sky. The blast shook the remote island that houses the Kodiak Launch Complex, where the U.S. DoD was testing an unmanned, hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). The flight of the highly secretive craft,” the two men write, “lasted a mere four seconds before an “anomaly” in the launch rocket forced controllers to deploy the emergency self-destruct mechanism.”

…”Upon discovering the location of a terrorist leader in Syria, an HGV fired from an Army base in Europe — could hit a target in less than a half an hour.”

Mr. Lin and Mr. Singer note that “the launch, the latest in a series that began in 2011, was saddled with added pressure: China has reportedly carried out at least two hypersonic tests this year (though both also ended in flames).” Actually, China just announced at the end of last week a third hypersonic test. The U.S. and China are “racing to engineer a vehicle capable of traveling faster than 10 times the speed of sound — which presents major obstacles. Such craft requires materials that can withstand temperatures over 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit; and, a steering system sensitive enough to maneuver through the thin air of the upper atmosphere,” they write.

“The details behind the U.S. and China’s HGV programs remain confidential; but, that real-world test/s — however spectacular the crashes — are taking place…indicates that the vehicles have crossed into the realm of the possible. Experts anticipate that HGVs could be fully operational by 2019; and, reach speeds of Mach 25, or about 16,000 miles per hour.”

“If weaponized” Popular Science notes, “HGVs could fly as far as intercontinental ballistic missiles (more than 3,500 miles) but strike with greater accuracy. Since the gliders don’t fly in a predictable parabolic arc like ballistic missiles do, they would be exceedingly difficult to shoot down with traditional missile defenses. And, their speed would make possible a whole new pace of war. For example. upon discovering the location of a terrorist leader in Syria, and HGV fired from a U.S. Army base in Western Europe could hit a target in less than a half an hour.”

How It Flies

1) Launches via rocket boosters that detach in the upper atmosphere;

2) Descends to an altitude of about 50 miles and then pulls up to level off it course;

3) Glides along an unpredictable path, veering left and right to avoid defenses;

4) Dives downward to hit its intended mark;

5) Destroys its target with explosives, or the vehicles kinetic energy alone.

Hypersonic Technology: Challenges And Opportunities

Pretty amazing when you think about it. Now combine hypersonic speed, stealth, and artificial intelligence (the ability to interact with other drones — without human intervention) and you truly would have the age of intelligence machines. But, probably thankfully, we’re still years away — I think — from that reality. Still, it is breathtaking in how far we’ve come in so little time. Group Captain Vivek Kapur, writing in the December 10, 2014 Center For Airpower Studies, “Hypersonic Technology: Challenges and Opportunities,” notes that “aerospace technology has been relentless in its breaching of new barriers. Initially, aircraft, in the infancy of airpower were restricted to speeds of a few tens of kilometers per hour (kmph). By WWII, speeds of up to 600-700kmph could be achieved.”

Hypersonic Pursuit Becoming A More Crowded/Competitive Field

The quest for hypersonic speed is one that is getting more crowded. Gp. Captain Kapur writes (see attached link/paper) “of the counties that have the capability to field advanced materials able to withstand high thermal stress — one can count the U.S., Russia, a few technologically advanced European countries such as France, and Britain, then there’s China and India (which have successfully tested space-to-earth reentry vehicles — demonstrating this capability). All these countries,” he writes, “are known as per open sources — to possess the ability to design hypersonic craft, known as “wave riders,” and to have programs to develop hypersonic supersonic combustion ramjet (scramjet) engines. The U.S. leads in this field,” Capt. Kapur contends, “having tested its X-43 hypersonic craft in free flight. The Russian, Chinese, and Australian programs follow in milestones achieved. The Indian program consists of two separate endeavors by Italian Space Research Organization (IRSO) and Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) to test scramjet engines and craft powered by these engines. The interest in India by IRSO, as well as the DRDO — appears to stem from the fact that hypersonic technology could be used to produce weapons platforms as well as reusable space access craft. For India, hypersonic research presents more opportunities than challenges — given India’s environment, engineering, and scientific abilities — as showcased by recent achievements of the country’s scientific community,” Capt. Kaput wrote.

Implications Of Hypersonic Craft

“A hypersonic craft, using a scramjet engine could achieve global range by default,” Capt. Kapur writes. “This craft would be able to reach suborbital altitudes from where it could glide to almost all parts of the globe through multiple boosts up to these altitudes — if required. In addition to this global reach,” he writes, “such a vehicle through its high speed operation and its ability to carry out even mild maneuvers — could defeat most interception systems — thus giving it the kind of invulnerability from attack that stealth is said to deliver. The cost of such a scramjet powered aircraft [drone] — is not likely to be low in the view of advanced materials and advanced construction techniques that would be required to build them. However,’ Capt. Kapur contends, “it is more than likely these [systems] would cost much lesser per unit than the current Gen 5 fighters and stealth bombers emerging in the West.”

“Even if the payload carried by a rocket were to be a craft of wave rider design characteristics — without scramjet engines, it could provide benefits,” Capt. Kapur writes. “Such a craft could be carried aloft by a rocket; and, on re-entry, into the atmosphere –could glide at hypersonic speeds till its designated impact point. The interesting thing here,” he says, “is that in the case of payloads carried by ballistic missiles such as IRBMs and ICBMs — the payload impact points are determined by the ballistic path followed by the rocket launch onwards. This gives some predictability about the target that is being addressed, as well as the path of the payload itself. Such predictable information assists in chances of successful intercept by suitable weapons systems. In case the rocket were to carry the payload in a hypersonic glide vehicle — it could have the ability to glide well out of ballistic trajectory that brought it till release point,” Capt. Kapur wrote. “The cone of possible targets that such a hypersonic glide vehicle could address would lie well outside the projected ballistic path of the rocket that brought it till release point for hypersonic glide. A rocket equipped with such a hypersonic glide enabled payload –could release the payload — so that the payload flies at hypersonic speeds to much further than what range the same rocket could achieve with a purely ballistic payload.” Capt. Kapur wrote. Moreover,” he says, “the hypersonic glide vehicle would operate at such high speeds — that current generation air defense and ballistic missile defense systems would in all likelihood would be unable to achieve intercept geometries on it — thus precluding a successful intercept and destruction of the payload, Such a system has the potential to give ballistic missiles the ability to defeat ballistic missile defense (BMD) weapons systems.”

“The recent Chinese tests of the WU-14 hypersonic glide vehicle has stirred fears,” Capt. Kapur writes, “has stirred fears in the U.S. for the reasons it heralds an unexpected ability of China’s newer ballistic missiles to defeat American BMD systems. It also presages the future emergence of possible hypersonic craft powered by scramjet engines from China’s factories.”

“From the Indian perspective,” Capt. Kapur writes, “it is prudent for India, especially given the research already undertaken successfully in the country to pursue the development of these technologies to make the country’s missiles more effective — as well as to deliver greater strike abilities to the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the medium term future. From the Indian perspective, hypersonic technology could deliver benefits out of proportion to its costs of development and operationalization.”


“There has been a trend of new technologies driving the ability of aircraft to operate at every higher speed with the passage of time,” Capt. Kapur concludes. To move from a few hundred kmph to supersonic speeds took almost half a century. Today, another half century later, we stand poised to achieve hypersonic speeds in practical speeds. Hypersonic craft have the potential to deliver assured penetration of hostile defenses, as well as global reach Applied to missiles — they could expand the reach of ballistic missiles through the ability of the payload to fly further out, as well as defeat BMD systems. All of these benefits,” Capt. Kapur concludes, “coupled with the level of research and development already done in India — make it prudent for the country to look at this technology from a practical point of view.”

Well, makes me think of failsafe on steroids. If you send one of these out in the future — you better be right. Would there be time to self-destruct? Pretty wild stuff. V/R, RCP

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