A hypersonic missile taking flight from somewhere around the globe, soaring and maneuvering through the atmosphere faster than five times the speed of sound. At that speed, a threat would be very hard to stop.
That is the scenario that concerns U.S. officials. The concern is real. Russia and China both claim to have tested hypersonic systems.
“In the last year, China has tested more hypersonics weapons than we have in a decade,” Michael Griffin, the Pentagon’s top weapons researcher, said at a National Defense Industrial Association-sponsored event in December. “We’ve got to fix that. Hypersonics is a game-changer.”
The U.S. Department of Defense is working on that fix. It has contracted with Raytheon and others to produce and rapidly deploy hypersonic flight programs. That includes development of technologies to defeat hypersonic vehicles.
As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moonshot, Raytheon is pursuing a number of futuristic "moonshot" technologies that could represent the next giant leap, including counter-hypersonics and hypersonic vehicles.
In March, the DoD granted Raytheon a $63 million contract to further develop the Tactical Boost Glide hypersonic flight program, a joint effort between the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Air Force.
For a tactical-range boost glide weapon to achieve hypersonic speeds, "a rocket accelerates its payload to high speeds. The payload then separates from the rocket and glides unpowered to its destination," according to the DARPA website.
Raytheon is also helping to develop air-breathing hypersonic systems. With engines built on a technology called a scramjet, the system uses a booster to reach cruising speeds. The missiles fly at sustained speeds above Mach 5 at certain altitudes in order to ensure the scramjet engine functions optimally.
The company has experience in the technical challenges of very high speeds, as it already produces missiles that travel above Mach 5.
Making the materials
Vehicles require unique materials to fly so fast. They must withstand blazing temperatures from the friction produced as they accelerate through the atmosphere. That calls for advanced manufacturing.
Hypersonics must also be aerodynamically maneuverable, posing challenges related to thermodynamics, complex geometries, materials and manufacturing. The most effective shapes for hypersonic systems are highly complex and quite different from conventional aircraft or missiles. Those shapes are being developed for the first time.
Raytheon has made significant investments in advanced design manufacturing facilities, including its Immersive Design Center, a virtual, 3-D environment for collaborative engineering and design.
The company expanded its facilities in Tucson, Arizona, last year, dedicating an entire building to high-power computing, harnessed for its work on hypersonic systems.
“In order to develop these highly advanced systems, you need the appropriate infrastructure in place and the technical talent to solve the most challenging problems,” said Dr. Thomas Bussing, Raytheon Advanced Missile Systems vice president.