The American Military’s Bewildering Hypersonics Effort

X-51 Waverider

Toward the end of a long article about the Pentagon’s effort to achieve Prompt Global Strike capability, reporter Sharon Weinberger looks at the military’s multiple ventures into the realm of hypersonics:

An alternative to the conventionally armed land-based ICBM is a hypersonic weapon, essentially a cruise missile capable of traveling at many times the speed of sound-faster than anything in today’s conventional arsenal. These missiles would not have to leave the Earth’s atmosphere and would have very different trajectories from ICBMs, so Russia would be less likely to mistake them for nuclear weapons.

The Pentagon has mentioned two non-ICBM candidates for Prompt Global Strike, one from the Army and one from DARPA. Both of these weapons would be boosted into the atmosphere by rockets and then glide back to Earth at hypersonic speeds. In addition to these official Prompt Global Strike options, the Pentagon is conducting at least three other hypersonic or near-hypersonic research efforts: the Air Force’s X-51 WaveRider, which used a scramjet engine to accelerate to Mach 6 in May; the Navy’s Revolutionary Approach to Time-Critical Long-Range Strike project, known as RATTLRS; and the DARPA-sponsored HyFly, a dual-combustion ramjet. (Ramjets and scramjets achieve rocket-like speeds without the heavy burden of liquid oxygen by mixing jet fuel with compressed air that enters the engine from the atmosphere.)

The proliferation of hypersonic research may mean that the Pentagon has faith in the technology. But it also makes black-budget watchers like John Pike, the director of the military information Web site GlobalSecurity.org, suspicious. Pike believes the military’s hypersonic programs may just be a cover for yet another black project. What kind, though, he has no idea.

“Have you ever tried to get to the bottom of the American hypersonics program?” Pike asked me rhetorically. “You know, I tried to about five years ago, and it made no sense. There were just too many programs.” Although this could just be typical Pentagon duplication, Pike sees something more suspicious. “If I was building a cover for something, I would either reduce the signal or increase the noise,” he says. “I think they’re increasing the noise.”

I don’t know if this is a cover for something else, but Pike is right about one thing: the hypersonic effort is bewildering. It seems like everyone is pursuing the same basic goal, but no one service has ultimate authority over this area. Competition can be good — or wasteful.

It will be interesting to see how all these program shake out, and what innovations end up making their way into civilian hypersonic transport programs.