US launches three hypersonic missiles in space-rocket test

Although hypersonic flight is extremely dangerous, chief tester says aircraft will likely be better than any existing missiles in 2-4 decades The US military launched three supersonic missiles on Sunday in a test of…

US launches three hypersonic missiles in space-rocket test

Although hypersonic flight is extremely dangerous, chief tester says aircraft will likely be better than any existing missiles in 2-4 decades

The US military launched three supersonic missiles on Sunday in a test of hypersonic technologies that could allow aircraft to reach much further across oceans in much less time than traditional missiles.

The Pentagon said hypersonic missile tests were “the next step toward enabling the US military to fight decisively anywhere in the world within two to four decades”.

The hypersonic rockets, called scramjet vehicles, could provide the flexibility to shift between air, ground and space forces “without redesigning US forces’ present lines of intercontinental ballistic missiles, torpedoes, missiles, and other air-breathing missiles,” the Pentagon said.

More than 50 years after the launch of the world’s first man-made satellite, the quest to build the world’s first space-planes is a popular science fiction trope, but hypersonic launches are also one of the most crucial areas of military technology.

Currently, the United States does not have a hypersonic launch capability. It does, however, have capabilities in space and is trying to get that capability. The type of launch aircraft used on Sunday were also a space launch vehicle, capable of autonomously launching hypersonic rockets to a range of altitudes from 130km to more than 2,000km (about 1,100 to 1,400 miles).

The Pentagon’s new head of the joint staff said earlier this year that the US was still waiting for the technology to mature.

“I’ve been trying to figure out when this technology is going to come back around for the United States, and I don’t have an answer,” said General Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The US plans to build a cheaper alternative to the Saturn V rockets that took astronauts to the moon, and he said SpaceX, the maker of commercially launched rockets and spacecraft, was among the firms struggling to produce the launch vehicles.

“In my view we’re just not getting the economics of this right,” Selva said, adding the government and industry needed to “try a different way” to make hypersonic launch more affordable.

The three test rockets were carried by tankers at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

One was launched at the other end of the range, and two others were launched in the center of the range. None reached a target altitude of over 70,000ft, while one disintegrated on the ground after it failed to make it back to its launch pad.

The US military has invested heavily in hypersonic technologies since late 2015 when then-president Barack Obama ordered the Pentagon to study ways to improve the ability to launch a US aircraft at sea or in space from any location within a range of 8,000km (5,500 miles).

Advancements in hypersonic technology are supposed to let an aircraft travel faster than the speed of sound. Because of the high speed, hypersonic missiles could be operated without warning and in response to a more immediate threat.

James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he was surprised at the flight speed of the test vehicles: Mach 9. The last hypersonic vehicle, the X-51A Waverider, took flight in February 2015 at a peak speed of Mach 5.5.

Lewis said the launch on Sunday was a good demonstration of the technology, but argued it may be several years before the US has a system that can be fielded.

In light of concerns about North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile program, Lewis said, the Trump administration may have chosen to fly the hypersonic weapons on a military aircraft “because that’s very sexy”.

“If [the US were] trying to show the US has a quick delivery system, I think they’ve got one,” he said.

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