ORLANDO — Hypersonic missiles could be here faster than you know it.

By 2020, the Air Force is likely to have operational prototypes ready for a program of record and testing to develop an operational unit, said Maj. Gen. Thomas Masiello, the commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory.

By the 2030s, the technology could have expanded beyond delivering warheads at speeds faster than sound to also include hypersonic intelligence and reconnaissance flights, he said.

The Air Force, Masiello said is focusing on "deliberate, incremental progress towards maturing this technology."

"We're looking for more singles, base hits, versus trying to go for a home run," he said.

Speaking at the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, FloridaFla., Masiello described the efforts the service is undertaking to develop engines that could travel at or above the widely accepted hypersonic range of Mach 5.

Between 2010 and 2013, the Air Force conducted four flights of the X-51, an experimental hypersonic cruise missile. The first and fourth flights were considered a success, but the engine failed to ignite in the second test flight, and a stabilizing fin broke off during the third flight.

Masiello said that the failures were more informative than the successes in figuring out what to do next and how to advance the technology.

"You have to build an environment that allows failure, because if you don't, you're not going to be pushing the boundaries of technology," he said.

America has already developed hypersonic technology, most famously in the X-15 experimental test plane that saw operation in the 1960s.

Maj. Gen. Curtis Bedke, ret., the former commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, lamented the fact that hypersonic research largely came to a halt when the X-15 was retired.

"We dropped everything and moved to something else and we lost our momentum," he said.

The Air Force should focus on developing hypersonic missiles to match those being researched by Russia and China, Bedke said. Though a hypersonic manned combat aircraft would grab headlines, it's unlikely to happen anytime soon and could detrimentally take funds away from development of hypersonic missiles.

"It may not sound as cool as coming up with a grand vision and then throwing money at it, but it's how were' going to get there," he said. "Hypersonic capabilities are inevitable, they are going to happen. If they don't happen in the United States, they will happen in other countries first."

Hypersonic munitions "hold much potential for addressing some of our key capabilities gaps," said retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, ret., head of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. He added that the current science suggests "it’s time to transition this capability into the operational realm."

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