"Combat at Speed" ... Hypersonic Weapons Will Change War

Warrior Maven

Video: Raytheon Engineers Develop New Infrared-Acoustic Sensor to Stop RPGs & ATGMs

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) The promise of hypersonic weapons introduces truly unprecedented warfare dynamics and, it is safe to say, it could greatly alter the evolution of modern warfare. Combat “at speed” would be quite different from anything we see today, not just in terms of range but the “timing” of attacks. With hypersonics, enemy air defenses, troop concentrations and command and control can be destroyed from vast distances before an enemy has any chance to know what kind of weapon is attacking, where it is in its flight path and, most of all, how to respond.

All of this introduces the question as to how hypersonics are engineered and built. What are the challenges and technical impediments to building something able to attack at hypersonic speeds: Hypersonics require very precise engineering to manage propulsion, temperature and target guidance, among other things.

A missile travelling at five-times the speed of sound brings never-before-seen dynamics to weapons production. Finding the right materials is crucial.Tim Sakulich, Executive Lead for Implementing the Air Force S&T Strategy, Air Force Research Lab, told The National Interest in an interview last year.

“From a materials and manufacturing standpoint, we are contributing to the hypersonics capability base by looking at materials and processes that will enable designers to demonstrate these kinds of future capabilities and make them affordable. This includes looking at composites and materials for thermal management,” Sakulich, who also serves as the Director of Materials and Manufacturing, Air Force Research Lab, told The National Interest during the interview.

A Raytheon essay on hypersonics refers to the significance of “thermodynamics” or “heat”management as essential to scientific efforts to build hypersonics. Weapons traveling at hypersonic speeds naturally generate a massive amount of heat which must be managed for the weapon to operate as intended. Specific materials designed to withstand high temperatures are being developed. One of the greatest challenges with hypersonics is what the Raytheon paper refers to as the “effects chain” -- the command and control, networking and sensor technology sufficient to achieve the requisite guidance, targeting and precision flight.

The Air Force has several hypersonics weapons programs now underway. The service is amid rapid development with Lockheed on two major programs -- the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon and the AGM-183A Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon.

Air-Breathing systems regularly use a scramjet engine to generate thrust -- and propel the air vehicle across long distances to a target. While engineered to reach previously unattainable levels of propulsion, scramjet engine technology aligns with the technical configuration of existing high-power engine systems. This includes taking in a high-speed air flow, compressing the air and then igniting it with gas or some kind of propellant to generate thrust.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest.

Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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