Hypersonic missiles that travel five times the speed of sound could help the Air Force petnetrate advanced anti-air systems that are being fielded by potential adversaries, a group of congressmen and experts said Tuesday.
"Hypersonics is no longer Buck Rogers stuff," said retired Maj. Gen. Curtis Bedke, Ret., former head of the Air Force Research Laboratory. "Hypersonic weapons are now both important for us to develop, and they are inevitable for somebody to develop. It’s time to get serious and focused about not falling behind."
The super-fast missiles could allow the U.S. to threaten targets deep in enemy territory that are protected by advanced anti-air and aerial denial systems. Especially in a fight with a near-peer adversary such as Russia or China, hypersonic missiles would allow the U.S. to speed past outer defenses to strike vulnerable targets, without risking pilots lingering too long in areas where they would be in danger of getting shot down.
"If you can have a weapon that can get to the enemy a lot quicker than the enemy can get to you, then you might win," said Rep. Steve Knight, R-Calif. (R-Calif.).
The U.S. has invested in hypersonic technology before, with the most recent test occurring in 2013 with the X-51 Waverider — a cruise-missile-like weapon powered by an engine capable of going hypersonic.
The test-missile flew at speeds approaching 3,500 mph for more than three minutes. Despite widely being regarded as a success, the next U.S. test is not scheduled until at least 2019, Bedke said.
By that time, experts fear, Russia and China could already be well ahead of the U.S. in developing hypersonic technology, and could have deployed anti-air systems that would threaten almost all fourth-generation non-stealth fighters.
"We need hypersonic weapons to help us mitigate the threat of anti-aircraft technology," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah (R-Utah). "Because of Russia’s willingness to proliferate weapons systems to rogue regimes and China’s startling advancement in technology…it is all but inevitable that our forces will routinely encounter these sophisticated systems in both the near and the long term. To defeat these advanced systems we need a technology that will definitely give us an edge. In short, we need hypersonics."
Hatch implored his fellow congressman to support funding for hypersonic technology development, despite a tightening fiscal budget.
Bedke and the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies released a report Tuesday on the advantages hypersonic missiles could have for U.S. defense. The 25-page booklet is written for members of Congress, their staff, and civilians, Bedke said, in hopes that it will start a dialogue on the importance of the technology.
"The path forward is not wild and expensive," he said, adding that the U.S. need to ensure "the wasted opportunities of the past are not repeated."
Those "wasted opportunities" include the fact that the U.S. has had hypersonic technology since the 1960’s, but didn’t really do any serious testing with it for the next 30 years, Bedke said.
In fact, Congressman Knight’s father, William "Pete" Knight, flew the X-15 hypersonic test plane in the 60’s, and holds the world record for speed in a powered winged aircraft at Mach 6.7.
The representative lamented that there's been little new development in hypersonic speed since then.
"That record shouldn't stand today," Knight said. "We should have passed that record a long time ago. If my father was still alive today, he'd say the exact same thing … If we are going to advance, if we are going to get to the next technology, then we have to do it through this technology."