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Updated 4:59 PM EDT, Fri, Oct 11, 2019

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US Air Force Going Fast Forward with Development of Hypersonic Cruise Missiles

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(Photo : Boeing) U.S. Air Force X-51 Waverider hypersonic missile (illustrationj).

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Air Force are partnering to fund development of the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) Program.

DARPA recently awarded Raytheon Company, the world's largest missile maker, and Lockheed Martin Corporation, the world's largest defense contractor, with contracts amounting to $170 million each to develop the air-launched hypersonic weapons.

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HAWC seeks to develop and demonstrate critical technologies to enable an effective and affordable air-launched hypersonic cruise missile.

These demonstrations seek to open the door to new, responsive long-range strike capabilities against heavily defended targets and targets that need to be attacked immediately. The program intends to emphasize efficient, rapid and affordable flight tests to validate key technologies.

Weapons capable of streaking towards their targets at hypersonic speeds of at least Mach 5 (6,200 km/h) can be fired farther away from their targets. At these fantastic speeds, a hypersonic missile can speed from Los Angeles to Beijing in less than 1.5 hours.

"These demonstrations seek to open the door to new, responsive long-range strike capabilities against time-critical or heavily defended targets," said DARPA.

Lockheed earlier this year touted a "breakthrough" in hypersonic technology and has floated the idea of developing a hypersonic spy plane for the U.S. military.

The Air Force wants to build on its research from previous efforts. In 2013, the service conducted its fourth and longest flight of the Boeing X-51 WaveRider.

X-51 is an unmanned research scramjet aircraft for hypersonic flight at Mach 5 at an altitude of 21,000 meters. Waverider refers to aircraft that take advantage of compression lift produced by their own shock waves.

X-51 technology will be used in the High Speed Strike Weapon (HSSW), a Mach 5+ missile planned to enter service in the mid-2020s.

After separating from a rocket launched beneath the wing of a B-52, the X-51 climbed to 18,000 meters, accelerated to Mach 5.1 and flew for about three and a half minutes before running out of fuel and plunging into the Pacific Ocean.

The X-51A Waverider was powered by a Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne SJY61 scramjet engine and designed to ride on its own shockwave and accelerate to about Mach 6.

Other companies such as the British defense giant BAE Systems and countries such as China and Russia are also working to develop hypersonic cruise missiles and similar technology.

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