US Outspending China and Russia in Hypersonic Weapons Research
The United States remains top dog in developing hypersonic weapons and is pouring money into a series of multimillion dollar projects despite apparently huge recent strides made by China and Russia.
The Pentagon continues to lavish money into hypersonic research with the goal of building hypersonic missiles that hurtle towards distant targets at between Mach 5 (6,000 km/h) to Mach 20 (25,000 km/h). Funding for hypersonic research jumped 50 percent in the Department of Defense budget request for 2017. The U.S. Air Force plans to test a hypersonic missile by 2020.
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Among others, the Pentagon is funding the Lockheed Martin Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) program; the Raytheon Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) and the Raytheon/Lockheed Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) program.
HTV-2 is a multiyear research and development effort to increase the technical knowledge base and advance critical technologies to make long-duration hypersonic flight a reality. The Falcon HTV-2 is an unmanned, rocket-launched, maneuverable aircraft that glides through the Earth's atmosphere at Mach 20.
HAWC is a joint DARPA/ Air Force effort to develop and demonstrate critical technologies that enable an effective and affordable air-launched hypersonic cruise missile. It will pursue flight demonstrations to address three critical technology challenges: air vehicle feasibility, effectiveness, and affordability.
TBG aims to develop and demonstrate technologies to enable future air-launched, tactical-range hypersonic boost glide systems. In a boost glide system, a rocket accelerates its payload to high speeds. The payload then separates from the rocket and glides unpowered to its destination.
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) gave Raytheon $20 million and Lockheed $24 million for TBG. Raytheon is also investing tens of millions of its own dollars into hypersonic research.
"These are very specific point design weapon systems. We have picked design points where the technology is available today and we can put these things together as systems now," said Thomas Bussing, vice president of Raytheon's Advanced Missile Systems.
He said Raytheon is working on two kinds of hypersonic missiles. One is a boost glide system that rides a rocket into space, then reenters the atmosphere and glides to its target at up to Mach 18 (22,500 km/h). The other is an air breathing missile that zooms forward at Mach 10 path (12,000 km/h).
These programs are part of the overarching Prompt Global Strike (PGS) program to develop a system that can deliver a precision-guided conventional weapon airstrike anywhere in the world within one hour.
Such a weapon might also be useful during a nuclear conflict, and replace the use of nuclear weapons against 30% of targets.
The PGS program encompasses conventional surface-launched missiles and air- and submarine-launched hypersonic missiles.
Unlike both China and Russia, however, the U.S. has said its hypersonic warheads or hypersonic glide vehicles won't pack nuclear warheads.
China and Russia, especially the latter, are developing hypersonic vehicles for the express purpose of being armed with nuclear warheads. Russia claims its Yu-74, a hypersonic glider that can be equipped with a thermonuclear warhead, is operational. The new ICBM intended to carry it won't be ready until 2020, however.
Russian media says this ultra-maneuverable Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) can bridge the 2,500 kilometer air gap between Moscow and London in 13 minutes. It claims the HGV can penetrate NATO's missile defense system and the U.S. THAAD missile defense system.
The weapon's ability to pierce western defenses is due mostly to its speed. The Yu-74 tears through the air at Mach 10 (12,400 km/h).