Hypersonic weapons race

Even before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s saber rattling this year about high-speed weapons, the U.S. was laying plans to sharpen its focus on hypersonic weapons, motivated mainly by China’s ambitious research and weapons tests. The Trump Pentagon wants to put this new focus in place in the 2019 budget.

Editor’s note: The computational fluid dynamics image above, created by Pointwise Inc., is a conceptual hypersonic waverider aircraft simulation.

This article has been corrected to say that hypersonic missiles travel faster than the fastest bullets in the world.

Chinese researchers have been publishing technical papers at a blistering pace about their fundamental research into hypersonic flight, loosely defined as maneuvering in the atmosphere at speeds above 6,000 kph. Flying faster than Mach 5 could be a handy way to travel, but for the leaders in this field — China, Russia and the U.S. — the emphasis has shifted to weapons. At least some of China’s research appears to be headed in that direction, based on references to missiles in the published papers, although my inquiries to the Chinese Embassy’s press office about the purpose of this research went unreturned. The Pentagon reported to Congress earlier this year that China has conducted 20 times as many hypersonic flight tests as the U.S. The most noteworthy recent test was in November, when China flew a new hypersonic missile, the DF-17, capable of flying 1,800 to 2,500 kilometers, as first reported by The Diplomat website.

Enter Russian President Vladimir Putin. Perhaps seeking not to be outdone by China, in March he delivered his state of the nation address at the historic Manezh Central Exhibition Hall in Moscow and narrated a series of video presentations about Russian high-speed weapons. The Russian TV network Ru-RTR broadcast the speech and posted the videos online, where they were picked up by media outlets throughout the world. One video showed a wedge-shaped “Hypersonic Glide Vehicle” weaving and porpoising through the fringes of space in a shroud of hot plasma, avoiding antimissile defenses. Another video concluded with nine warheads about to descend toward South Florida, the site of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, which is in charge of the country’s nuclear-armed missiles, told reporters at the Space Symposium in April: “You should believe Vladimir Putin. Everything he said [Russia has] worked on.” But Hyten said “the operational status of all those capabilities” is a “different issue.”

Many experts who watch developments in this area are convinced that it’s not Russia but China that has sprung ahead of the U.S. in hypersonics research and weaponry. The view that the U.S. is behind any country, whether China or Russia, is not unanimous, however.

“From what I know, we’re not falling behind at all,” says Philip Coyle, who was in charge of national security and international affairs in the Obama White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy in 2010 and 2011, and was an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. “It’s very common whenever somebody makes a speech the way President Putin did for members of Congress or people in industry to say, ‘We’re behind; we’re behind.’ But I don’t think that’s the fact.”

If China and possibly Russia have gained an edge on the U.S., they’ve done so by mixing new technologies with proven ones. The Holy Grail of hypersonic research would be a vehicle capable of culling oxygen for combustion from the air instead of lugging it along in a tank as a rocket must. The U.S. set a record for air-breathing hypersonic flight in 2013 when the Boeing-built X-51 Waverider propelled itself for 210 seconds after being released by a booster. Meanwhile, China and Russia chose to focus much of their work on weapons that would be boosted to hypersonic speeds via conventional rockets and then glide to their targets. Hence Putin’s Hypersonic Glide Vehicle, for instance.

Feeling behind, the Trump administration proposes pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a game of urgent catch-up led in part by Michael Griffin, the Pentagon’s chief technology officer and under secretary for research and engineering. Much of the emphasis will be on boost-glide concepts, although air-breathing will still be vigorously pursued.

The Air Force and DARPA began collaborative projects in hypersonics in 2014 and 2015 with the goal of feeding lessons into programs of record in the 2020s. “We have simply accelerated the [science and technology] activities into prototypes sooner than planned,” says Air Force Col. K. Colin Tucker in the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition.

Griffin told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee that China can field or is close to fielding hypersonic missiles that can reach thousands of kilometers from its shores to strike U.S. aircraft carriers.

“We, today, do not have systems which can hold them at risk in a corresponding manner, and we don’t have defenses against those systems,” Griffin told the committee. “It is among my very highest priorities to erase that disadvantage, creating our own systems to hold them at risk” and to “provide defense.”

The latest budget numbers suggest a major shift in magnitude and emphasis.

In April, the Defense Department awarded Lockheed Martin a $928 million contract to develop and test the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon. These boost-glide missiles would be launched from the air. Lockheed is to develop them from mature technologies as quickly as possible. DARPA is seeking to boost its overall hypersonics spending by $148 million next year. Much of that is destined for the Tactical Boost Glide program to develop technologies for an air-launched hypersonic missile that would glide unpowered at hypersonic velocity after an initial rocket-powered acceleration.

Air-breathing research continues under a program called HAWC, short for Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, but funding would be reduced by half in 2019 to $14 million. Another air-breathing hypersonic program, the Advanced Full Range Engine program, would receive $53 million — an $18 million increase — to develop an engine that could accelerate from low-speed takeoff to hypersonic velocities.

The U.S. Air Force, which is a partner with DARPA on the Tactical Boost Glide and HAWC programs, plans to fly demo versions of the missiles by 2020. For developing prototype missiles and other hypersonics research, the Air Force is seeking to spend $500 million next year, up from $258 million this fiscal year.

With all this spending and a new emphasis on gliding weapons, advocates of U.S. hypersonics programs worry that the country does not have a unified strategy, especially for the basic research that feeds into applied research.

“It’s not only about how much money, it’s how you’re spending it, and coordinating it nationally into a more coherent formulation,” says Mark Lewis, director of science and technology policy at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, D.C.

When it comes to basic research, “what we have now is a bunch of great people scattered about the country doing great work mostly on their own, but no concentrated effort,” says Iain Boyd, a professor, hypersonics researcher and faculty director of government relations at the University of Michigan.

Boyd says the arrival of Griffin is encouraging for the applied research side of things, in which prototypes are created to clear the way for fieldable weapons. “There is a process there, so I would say that that’s in better shape,” he says.

Taking China seriously

Over the last 10 years, China has given experts in other nations glimpses of its hypersonics work by allowing its researchers to publish papers in the same technical journals where researchers from the U.S., Germany, France, Australia, Japan, Italy, Russia and the United Kingdom publish. Boyd, the Michigan professor, says the papers 10 years ago were viewed as poor quality. “They were really just copying what other people had done; really just catching up,” he says.

Today, that’s no longer the case. Boyd says China has caught up, and then some. The Chinese researchers are respected as peers in the community of hypersonics researchers who share unclassified findings.

In Boyd’s view, China’s spending on modern research facilities and staffing has started to pay off, both with air-breathing and boost-glide concepts and with related subtopics, such as aerodynamics, propulsion, structures, materials, guidance, navigation and controls.

Boyd says China appears to be ahead of the U.S. in the race to create Mach 5-plus missiles. China’s testing of those missiles seems to indicate a boost glide concept, but not definitively, Lewis says.

Today’s cruise missiles typically top out at the Tomahawk’s velocity, 880 kilometers per hour. By definition, hypersonic missiles travel faster than Mach 5, or more than 6,174 kilometers per hour — faster than the fastest bullets in the world.

Doubting Putin

Some Western experts are skeptical of Putin’s hypersonic claims. In his presentation, Putin said Russia is testing the Sarmat, a 200-ton ballistic missile with multiple hypersonic warheads (the one that was shown targeting Florida); fielding the Kinzhal (Dagger) aircraft-delivered hypersonic missile, which began its “trial service” in December 2017, with a range of more than 2,000 kilometers and velocity of Mach 10; and has tested the Avangard, a “gliding-wing,” maneuverable intercontinental missile that flies at Mach 20.

One U.S. hypersonics researcher, who asked not to be named, says that Putin’s claims are difficult to believe, based on the country’s recent struggles with technology development and its lack of resources. For example, Russia launched the fewest rockets for its space program in 2017 than any year since 1965, and many of its launches were for U.S. missions.

Russia’s hypersonics research has stagnated below the U.S., and “way, way, way below China,” the researcher says. “They just don’t have the money to be playing in the hypersonics space.”

For his part, Boyd says he won’t comment on whether the Russian claims seem to be truthful, but “separating reality from fiction can be challenging, certainly with respect to President Putin’s comments about their new weapons. There’s been a lot of discussion about how real are some of those capabilities.”

The case for boost-glide

The U.S. continues to pursue air-breathing hypersonics while increasing its focus on boost-glide vehicles.

Charles Miller, president of NexGen Space consulting and a former NASA senior adviser for commercial space, argues that the U.S. government should follow the lead of the private space industry, which has invested heavily in rocket propulsion and passed over the air-breathing hypersonic concepts.

“The free market is saying rockets are the way to do it; scramjets are not,” Miller says, using a shorthand term for supersonic combustion ramjets, an air-breathing concept. “One of them has a large commercial market that will drive private investment and make it sustainable; the other does not.” With air-breathing hypersonics, he says, “Companies are not going to put private skin in the game. They see no long-term commercial market opportunity. That means it’s all going to be cost-plus contracts that the government has to pay for.”

It would make sense for the U.S. to look to the technology advances of the private space launch companies and their potential military capabilities, says Jess Sponable, former DARPA program manager for the hypersonic XS-1. The rocket-powered XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane would take off and accelerate under rocket power to nearly orbital altitudes to launch satellites, then glide back to Earth. Flight tests are planned by 2020.

“I think we should leverage the billionaire entrepreneurs at the companies investing in reusable hypersonic launch systems that are rocket-powered, and we should figure out how to take advantage of all that capability that people are literally spending billions of dollars on.”

That does not have to mean giving up on air-breathing, he cautions.

The advantage of boost-glide is that the rocket engine technology — how to build them and how they perform — is well known. The critical design limits for boost-glide aren’t propulsion; they’re aerodynamics and maneuverability, says Lewis of the Institute for Defense Analyses.

Another advantage to boost glide is that its flight is typically through space during the acceleration phase, so the extreme thermal conditions and shock waves caused by trying to push through the air of the atmosphere are avoided during that phase, Sponable says.

Attraction of air-breathing

While both modes of flight present extreme engineering challenges, air-breathing hypersonic flight is the most difficult and least developed option. An air-breathing hypersonic engine — the supersonic combustion ramjet, or scramjet — has no moving parts. The inlet compresses the supersonic air rushing in to mix oxygen with fuel for combustion, and a nozzle at the back of the engine accelerates the heated air out of the combustion chamber to generate thrust.

Igniting and maintaining combustion when air is traveling through the engine at 1.6 kilometers per second is challenging. “It’s like trying to light a match in a hurricane, to keep that combustor lit,” says Sponable, the former XS-1 manager. Extreme temperatures created by hypersonic airflow — more than 1,500 degrees Celsius (2,732 degrees Fahrenheit) on parts of the vehicle — and the shifting shock waves that buffet the aircraft at the extreme velocities add to the challenge. So far, the longest air-breathing hypersonic flight on record is the 210 second X-51 Waverider flight.

The potential advantage of air-breathing engines would be that at hypersonic speeds, they could have three times the specific impulse — a measure of propulsion efficiency — of the rocket engines that would drive boost-glide vehicles. That could give the weapons an advantage in range.

Research community

In the U.S., most fundamental hypersonics research is handled by universities, while applied research progresses mostly through DARPA, and to a lesser extent through the Air Force Research Lab and NASA. While DARPA receives funding from the Air Force, Navy and Army for hypersonics research, it doesn’t have its own laboratories — it farms out the research activities to its private-industry contractors. On the university side, Boyd says about 300 faculty members, graduate students and post-doctorate researchers devote themselves to hypersonics research in the U.S., with about $20 million per year spent on it. The total number of hypersonics researchers is about half of that in China, judging by the publicly available research, he says.

China also appears to employ a more integrated research effort, putting more of its university researchers together to work in one place. In the U.S., the largest individual university hypersonics programs may have 25 people, typically not coordinating together but working individually or in teams of two, Boyd says.

China’s spending on hypersonics is also seen in its numerous new research facilities, contrasting with the U.S., which has “a lot of great facilities,” but many are in old buildings that are “creaking at the seams,” Boyd says.

Importance of basic research

To catch up with China, the U.S. will have to do more, starting with its spending on fundamental hypersonics research, Boyd says. “There has to be more investment, because at the end of the day, China is investing more people and newer facilities than we have. We don’t have any really secret sauce, I don’t think, to any great extent that’s going to allow us to catch up without increasing our effort here.”

If the U.S. decides that hypersonics is going to be an important element of its national security strategy, then it’s going to have to develop a workforce. Boosting fundamental research spending would help accomplish that: educating and training engineers in the details of a challenging field, as well as germinating the next generation of ideas for new technologies, Boyd says.

At U.S. universities, 60 percent to 70 percent of the hypersonics research is focused on aerodynamics and aerothermodynamics: looking at how gases flow around the hypersonic vehicle in flight, Boyd says. In China, the research described in journal articles shows a more even distribution of efforts across aerodynamics, propulsion, materials and controls. The U.S. needs to take a more balanced, multidisciplinary approach to hypersonics research to field operational systems, because every aspect of a hypersonic vehicle affects every other aspect.

The U.S. also needs better coordination, through centers of excellence or a similar centralized approach that promotes cross-over between disciplines, Boyd says.

On the applied research side, the key change for the U.S. needs to be increasing the number of test flights, Boyd says. Demonstration flight programs that fly only one or four test flights aren’t doing enough to make any real progress in developing operational systems, especially when compared to other U.S. missile programs.

“It’s expensive, and it’s difficult, but it’s like anything — you’ve got to try it out,” he says. “It’s like self-driving cars — you’ve got to put them out there in the actual environment, and learn some hard lessons, probably, to get where you want to go.”

Because rocket technology is more advanced relative to the state of scramjet development, probably the easiest gains in hypersonics will initially come with boost-glide concepts, Sponable says. Over the longer term, the best hypersonic propulsion model will be whichever can fly at high speed at the lowest recurring operating costs, and with acceptable environmental impacts.

“If you can implement this stuff operationally, there’s merit to it. If you can’t, it’s just endless hobby shop,” he says. “We’ve got to figure out how to take the low-hanging fruit and pursue those hypersonic systems that we can do. Successes in those areas will justify the investment in the longer term, more difficult aspects of hypersonics.”

Based on the current state of hypersonics research, it’s still an open question whether the U.S. should pursue both boost-glide and air-breathing concepts, Boyd says. “The motivation for continuing to study both is that they may provide, in the end different, unique and important capabilities. At some point if it’s determined that one system just doesn’t provide enough of an added value over the other, then it probably will be dropped.”

Staff reporter Tom Risen contributed.

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About Keith Button

Keith has written for C4ISR Journal and Hedge Fund Alert, where he broke news of the 2007 Bear Stearns hedge fund blowup that kicked off the global credit crisis. He is based in New York.

“The free market is saying rockets are the way to do it; scramjets are not.”

Charles Miller, president of NextGen Space consulting
Table displaying the number of papers presented by different countries at the 2017 AIAA International Space Planes and Hypersonic Systems and Technologies Conference, highlighting China's leading output.
Credit: IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute
A spacecraft with engines lit is flying above the Earth's atmosphere, with the planet's curving horizon and scattered clouds visible below. The spacecraft has logos of Boeing and Phantom Express.
Boeing is building DARPA’s hypersonic Experimental Spaceplane, or XS-1, which Boeing calls Phantom Express and is seen in an artist’s rendering. Credit: Boeing
A military jet with red star insignia flies in the sky, carrying a missile under its body.
Russia exhibited its air-launched hypersonic missile Kinzhal during a parade May 9. Credit: Wikipedia
A high-altitude aircraft carrying a small, sleek vehicle attached beneath its wing, flying against a clear blue sky.
The X-51A Waverider achieved Mach 5.1 after launching from a U.S. Air Force B-52H in 2013. Credit: U.S. Air Force

Hypersonic weapons race