Video: Air Force Sees Hypersonic Weapons in 2025

The U.S. military may be able to deploy unmanned hypersonic weapons as early as 2025, an official said.

The Air Force on May 1 successfully flew the X-51 WaveRider, an experimental “scramjet” made by Boeing Co., reaching up to five times the speed of sound for a record three and a half minutes. The service called it “the longest air-breathing hypersonic flight ever.”

The fourth and final mission was the culmination of a nine-year, $300 million project designed to test the viability of using more common jet fuels for hypersonic flight. The demonstration may lead to a program to develop weapons based on the technology by 2020 and usable systems by 2025, according to Charlie Brink, manager of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s X-51A program.

“The goal is to be ready in the 2020 time frame so we could go to the war fighter and say, ‘We’re ready to go with this,’ and then Air force leadership will make the decision if we want to go forward with a hypersonic weapon,” he said last week during a conference call with reporters. It “probably would not start in the battlefield until at least the 2025-2030 time frame.”

The technology has the potential to improve the ability of a weapon to enter enemy territory and shorten the time necessary for U.S. troops to respond to targets, Brink said.

“Today’s cruise missiles might go 500 to 600 miles per hour and they might fly one or more hours to go after a very far away target,” he said. “If you could get something that flies six times that speed, instead of taking it an hour to hit that target, it might only take you 10 minutes. That kind of capability to take out an enemy’s air defenses or high-value target could be of great benefit to the war fighter as we move forward.”

The technology is also unlikely to be confused with a nuclear weapon because its trajectory is unlike the bell-shaped curve of a ballistic missile.

The missile-like vehicle was dropped at 50,000 feet from the wing of a B-52H Stratofortress flown by Maj. Andrew Murphy, according to the Air Force. Powered by a solid-rocket booster, it accelerated to Mach 4.8 in less than 30 seconds. After it separated from the booster, the scramjet engine ignited and pushed it to a top speed of Mach 5.1 at 60,000 feet.

The propulsion system was built by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, a unit of United Technologies Corp. that is being sold to GenCorp.

In all, the X-51 traveled more than 230 nautical miles in more than six minutes above the Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center Sea Range, according to the Air Force. After running out of fuel, it crashed into the ocean, as planned. The service  released a video of the flight taken by a NASA pilot who flew alongside the bomber in a modified F-15 fighter jet.

“It was a very, very good day,” Brink said. “We got all the data that we wanted on our last flight test vehicle, so we were ecstatic with the results.”

The U.S. military has previously flown aircraft at hypersonic speeds of Mach 5 and above using hydrogen fuel. The X-51 is unique in that it uses a hydrocarbon-based jet fuel known as JP-7, a type of fuel derived from kerosene that also powered the SR-71 Blackbird, Brink said. The X-51’s engine was started with a small amount of ethylene, then transitioned to JP-7, he said.

Hydrocarbon-based fuels are easier to store and more practical for military use, according to Joe Vogel, manager of the program at Chicago-based Boeing.

“The hydrocarbon fuel is a much easier storable type of a fuel, where hydrogen, though you can get more energy out of it, it’s more energetic, it’s also very difficult to store,” he said during the conference call. “So from a practical standpoint, having a hydrocarbon fuel is a lot easier to work with.”

The project was managed by the Air Force and funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The service didn’t say whether the X-51 will be followed by a similar project, only that research from the effort will be incorporated into the High Speed Strike Weapon, a program led by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division to develop a hypersonic missile for future bomber and fighter aircraft.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • XYZ

    Sweet. Don’t know about hypersonic missiles but scramjets are neat and I hope we get better and better at them.

  • miads

    Let me ask. What It will be different from Hypersonic Brahmos Missile?

    • Sir Sapo
      • USS ENTERPRISE

        AND, it worked (the X-51).

      • miads

        Thanks pal.

  • Tri-ring

    JSDF is developing the XASM-3 which is scheduled to go online in 2017. It’s an anti ship missile that has a shorter range but flies at the same speed.

  • davidz

    “The technology is also unlikely to be confused with a nuclear weapon” is there any reason why this missile cannot have nuclear warhead?

    • Guest

      You don’t need warheads with hypersonic/kinetic kill vehicles. A piece of steel traveling at mach 10 will do all the damage you need to have done.

      • Thomas L. Nielsen

        According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia [/sarcasm], the empty weight of the X-51A is 1814 kg.

        The top speed is given as “Mach 6+ but let’s, for the sake of the calculation, assume a Mach 10 impact speed.

        This would give the X-51A an impact energy (0.5 x Mass x Velocity x Velocity) of approx. 9.3GJ, equal to the energy in 2.2 metric tons of TNT (1 metric ton of TNT contains 4.18GJ of energy, also according to Wiki).

        Not bad at all.

        Regards & all,

        Thomas L. Nielsen
        Luxembourg

    • Thomas L. Nielsen

      There should be no technical reasons why you couldn’t fit a nuke to the X-51 (or its operational descendants). The article, however, is making a comparison with ballistic missiles.

      Ballistic missiles could, in principle, perform the same mission. The problem is that a ballistic missile launch pretty much screams NUKE! to anyone with a half-decent early warning system.

      Regards & all,

      Thomas L. Nielsen
      Luxembourg

  • Nadnerbus

    Normally I am highly skeptical about optimistic timelines like this, but I would imagine once you have the engine working and tested, adding a warhead and guidance to the system shouldn’t be a project breaker.

    This would definitely be a a good advantage to have in a future conflict with a peer or near-peer power. Hard if not impossible to defend against, and great for first strike, first day of war planning.

    Unless they cost thirty million dollars a pop or something. DOD has a habit or price ballooning on things lately.

  • oblatt1

    >The U.S. military may be able to deploy unmanned hypersonic weapons as early as 2025, an official said.

    laughable given the failures of the program so far.

  • Tony C.

    The scramjet technology is not new, but it is an option for hypersonic missile technology. The issues with hypersonic flight profiles are extreme heat and the X-15 proved that at about mach 6, even stainless steel will melt. There wil have to be new materials technologies developed for a hypersonic missile that will obviously drive the cost to the prohibitive range. Material technolgy is the driving factor behind many of the F-35 costs overruns.

    • Thomas L. Nielsen

      “The scramjet technology is not new….”

      No, but actually getting it to work is.

      Regards & all,

      Thomas L. Nielsen
      Luxembourg

    • citanon

      They’ve had the materials for a while now. What do you think the X-51 is made of? The problem was the engine itself, which they’ve apparently solved. Next I imagine they’ll be finding out how well they can make it turn and bank at hypersonic speeds.

  • Slamr

    We did a study several years ago and found that Mach 4 was the knee of the curve at that time in terms of time, range, payload and platform compatability. We came to the conclusion that hydrocarbon fuels were required due to storage and complexity issues dealing with exotic fuels. Too fast and you do get coking with HC fuels so watch your speed.

  • joe

    Did anything ever come of Pulse Detonation Engines? They were supposed to be a viable alternative to a scramjet about five years back…

  • Frank Andrews

    Why declassify this tech? Rather than put fear in an enemy heart, I would think it would cause the enemy to develop (read steal) the same technology. Especially if we’re already buying parts of it from China. I suspect this is just B.S.ing on the part of the Administration to make Americans sleep better.

    • USS ENTERPRISE

      We are buying parts of it from China? Dang. But I don’t think the chinese can screw up rivets THAT badly. Otherwise, this would be a US built device. Now, if they didn’t declassify the tech, than about 3 billion USD would be given to the all so secretive black projects in the US government, and people will wonder what the money is spent on. Also, just looking at a device doesn’t give you enough info.

  • Slamr

    Remember that weapons must be affordable as well as effective. Services prefer to put their $$ into shiny steeds rather that arrows. Speeds over Mach 3 get very expensive, very fast (sorry). Payload also suffers, a Mach 5 hand grenade is not so scary. My metric was a 1/2 -1 ton of payload at Mach 3-4. most of the inventory can carry that.

  • PrahaPartizan

    Strange that the USAF is claiming to be responsible for deploying any hypersonic weapons when everybody knows that it will be the US Navy actually fielding them. The USAF also wants to waste money on a fancy new penetration bomber when hypersonic cruise missiles which can reach out and touch someone immediately offer so much more potential. Better that the USAF opt for a large heavy-lifter which can carry a bazillion hypersonic deployables to be targeted by space assets or operatives on the ground. Otherwise, it’s the Navy’s underwater force which will snatch these weapons away from right under the Air Force’s nose.

  • Dan Rondeau

    We have successfully tested maneuvering hypersonic warheads with conventional munitions. Cost of systems make them better for one off use against soft, high value targets rather than the high volume close air support or air interdiction applications. Prompt global strike will need a suite of hypersonic weapons and high volume long strike systems likely await advanced electromagnetic launch before affordable.

  • inside man

    i can see these hypersonic missiles-like vechiles being used for next gen missile defense, maybe deployed at ground bases, at high alt. or space….

  • nohomehere

    so will this make the manned scram jet for intercontinental flight a reality or not?