Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Arms Race Goes Supersonic

Arms Race Goes Supersonic

April 09, 2014 | Ruth Odia
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The Pentagon is going hypersonic with an experimental scramjet-powered, ultrahigh speed strike vehicle as its main choice for a new long-range, rapid attack weapon. Two and a half months ago, China successfully tested its first hypersonic missile delivery vehicle, dubbed the Wu-14.

The ultrahigh speed maneuvering vehicle test represented a major challenge for current U.S. missile defenses, which are designed to counter non-maneuvering ballistic missile threats. Pentagon officials have confirmed the Chinese vehicle’s capabilities of penetrating the US missile defense system and delivering nuclear warheads with record breaking speeds. Rick Fisher, an analyst at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, also said that the Chinese were actively seeking global military power to challenge the United States.

For China, this new weapon delivery system was reportedly designed to be launched as the final stage of its intercontinental ballistic missile, which would approach its target at a velocity of up to 10 times the speed of sound. Hypersonic speed range lies between Mach 5 and Mach 10, or 3,840 to 7,680 miles per hour.

According to the Washington Times, principal deputy assistant defense secretary for research and engineering Alan R. Shaffer told a defense industry conference that "we, the U.S., do not want to be the second country to understand how to have controlled scramjet hypersonics."

The X-51 is the Pentagon’s most promising hypersonic vehicle, a cruise missile-sized weapon powered by an advanced engine called a scramjet. Developed by Boeing, it flies at up to 3,882 mph, or Mach 5.1, and is launched from under the wing of a B-52 bomber. Another Pentagon official has said the futuristic scramjet technology is looking promising as a leading candidate for the U.S. "conventional prompt global strike" mission. Boeing's X-51A WaveRider hypersonic vehicle, propelled by an advanced scramjet engine, could allow the U.S. military to strike targets virtually anywhere around the globe in under an hour from receiving an attack order.

In 2013, after three difficult tests, including one described awkwardly by testers as an “un-ignition event,” the X-51 achieved a test breakthrough when it traversed several thousand miles at Mach 5 speed and reached an altitude of 80,000 feet, all in the span of a 300-second flight. This was the second time it was shown that the scramjet can ignite and give positive acceleration, which according to one official is a great achievement in understanding hypersonics.

Mr. Shaffer said hypersonic weapons, when fully developed, will be less expensive than current jets and cruise missiles powered by complex turbine engines with many parts. A scramjet, or supersonic combusting ramjet, hypersonic vehicle has few moving parts. The weapons will provide “rapid, responsive strike in anti-access/access denied environments” — the Pentagon euphemism for China’s high-technology weapons designed to push U.S. forces out of Asia.

U.S. defense officials have said conventional prompt global strike technologies, once developed and deployed, could offer a partial alternative to the use of nuclear arms under certain circumstances. Some observers, though, have warned that fielding these weapons could introduce new misunderstandings into global crises, and might inadvertently increase the risk of nuclear war.

Hypersonic missile technology is currently a topic of much research and development in the United States, Russia, China, and India. Currently, the title of the fastest cruise missile in the world is held by the Russo-Indian jointly developed BrahMos cruise missile. The technology offers several advantages over conventional or supersonic missiles, namely rapid payload delivery, improved survivability against missile defense systems, and precision targeting.

Russia’s Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center said in its annual report that Russia is building “a new class of hypersonic vehicle” that would “allow Russian strategic missiles to penetrate missile defense systems.” Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin said mid last year that Russia was experiencing a revolution in military science, and added: “Neither current nor future American missile defense systems will be able to prevent that missile from hitting a target dead on.” Moscow is also developing the S-500 air and space defense system, with interceptors capable of shooting down hypersonic missiles.

The arms race has definitely entered an interesting supersonic phase.


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