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.
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.
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.
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."