Rus­sia, China posed threat in hy­per­sonic race for years

U.S. be­gins pri­or­i­tiz­ing game-changer mis­siles

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitic­s - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. | The end of Amer­i­can dom­i­nance in the class of hy­per­sonic weaponry can be traced back to a steady decline in re­search and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion that be­gan more than a decade ago, schol­ars and mil­i­tary in­sid­ers say, and the U.S. is only now be­gin­ning to fully rein­vest in the cut­ting-edge work nec­es­sary to keep pace with its highly mo­ti­vated, well-fi­nanced ad­ver­saries.

As Pentagon of­fi­cials warn that Rus­sia and China are out­pac­ing the U.S. in the race to build the world’s fastest planes and radar-de­fy­ing mis­siles, Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties and lab­o­ra­to­ries say there has been a ma­jor challenge to the of­ten te­dious re­search work cru­cial to na­tional se­cu­rity.

Pur­due Univer­sity hy­per­son­ics re­searchers said it was clear years ago that the U.S. was about to face a ma­jor global challenge and that their work would play a piv­otal role in turn­ing the tide.

“I think a lot of us saw that com­ing, I would say even five, 10 years ago,” said Joseph S. Jewell, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Pur­due’s School of Aero­nau­tics and Astro­nau­tics.

Mr. Jewell is one mem­ber of a team work­ing on hy­per­sonic tech­nol­ogy, in­clud­ing ex­per­i­ments at the In­di­ana school’s Boe­ing/AFOSR Mach-6 Quiet Tun­nel, a project fi­nanced 20 years ago by Boe­ing and the Air Force’s of­fice of sci­en­tific re­search.

The wind tun­nel, housed in a non­de­script ware­house ad­ja­cent to Pur­due’s small air­port, helps re­searchers study how tur­bu­lence affects ve­hi­cles trav­el­ing at Mach 6 or higher — the kinds of speeds now viewed as top mil­i­tary pri­or­i­ties in Wash­ing­ton, Moscow and Bei­jing. The tun­nel is just one piece of a broad slate of re­search projects at uni­ver­si­ties, gov­ern­ment lab­o­ra­to­ries and pri­vate de­fense firms across the coun­try.

That re­search, an­a­lysts say, even­tu­ally will ben­e­fit all cor­ners of the mil­i­tary and the broader de­fense in­dus­trial base. Hy­per­sonic tech­nol­ogy will yield mis­siles that are faster and more ma­neu­ver­able than ever be­fore, planes that can travel at pre­vi­ously unimag­in­able speeds, weapons that threaten to ren­der cur­rent de­fense sys­tems ob­so­lete, and a host of other re­mark­able ad­vances.

“It’ll af­fect ev­ery part of what we do,” said re­tired Air Force Gen. Her­bert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, now pres­i­dent and CEO of the Na­tional De­fense In­dus­trial As­so­ci­a­tion.

The trade as­so­ci­a­tion spon­sored an in­au­gu­ral con­fer­ence July 30-Aug. 1 at Pur­due fo­cused en­tirely on hy­per­son­ics, at­tract­ing weapons specialist­s and aca­demics from across the coun­try full of fas­ci­na­tion — and con­cern.

Mr. Jewell said law­mak­ers, the me­dia and oth­ers have grown in­ter­ested as it be­comes more ev­i­dent that the U.S. mil­i­tary has a great deal of work to do just to catch up with its ad­ver­saries.

“The best way to de­scribe it in my per­sonal view … is that we should be con­cerned,” said Mr. Jewell, a former sci­en­tist at the hy­per­son­ics branch of the U.S. Air Force Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory. “I’m con­cerned. I think most peo­ple are con­cerned.”

The U.S., “by virtue of our space pro­gram and the sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ments in aero­space we’d made over the years, built up a large tech­ni­cal lead,” he said. “And it’s cer­tainly fair to say that’s been erod­ing sig­nif­i­cantly and much more quickly over the last 10 years than be­fore.”

Rus­sia’s ‘in­vul­ner­a­ble’ weapon

That ero­sion stems from the con­flu­ence of two fac­tors. At the same time the amount of Amer­i­can re­search has de­clined, fund­ing and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in China and Rus­sia have dra­mat­i­cally in­creased, specialist­s say.

In a widely re­ported event, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in De­cem­ber watched a suc­cess­ful test of the new Avan­gard hy­per­sonic glide ve­hi­cle and de­clared it “in­vul­ner­a­ble to in­ter­cept by any ex­ist­ing and prospec­tive mis­sile de­fense means of the po­ten­tial ad­ver­sary.”

Say­ing the Avan­gard could be de­ployed this year, Mr. Putin boasted that the test was an “ex­cel­lent New Year’s gift to the na­tion.”

Although there are a host of spe­cific ex­am­ples, schol­ars point to the lack of U.S. test­ing of hy­per­sonic air­craft called “scram­jets,” or su­per­sonic-com­bus­tion ram­jets. Defined by NASA as “a ram­jet en­gine in which the air­flow through the en­gine re­mains su­per­sonic,” the craft are vi­tal to keep­ing pace in the high-stakes world of hy­per­son­ics, specialist­s say.

But test­ing of scram­jets has dropped off sig­nif­i­cantly in re­cent years, cre­at­ing a danger­ous gap in U.S. ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

“I will re­mind you the United States flew the first scram­jet en­gine on an in­te­grated ve­hi­cle in 2004. In 2010, the U.S. Air Force flew the first what I would call oper­a­tional scram­jet, an en­gine that could op­er­ate as long as you gave it fuel,” Mark Lewis, direc­tor of the Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Pol­icy In­sti­tute at the In­sti­tute for De­fense Analy­ses, said dur­ing a speech at the Na­tional De­fense In­dus­trial As­so­ci­a­tion con­fer­ence.

“The last flight of that en­gine was 2013. Well, wel­come to 2019. So it’s been six years. We’re on track to maybe fly some­thing at the end of this year, maybe early next year,” he said. “You don’t make progress if your pro­grams are spaced decades apart. So it’s not sur­pris­ing that we find our­selves chal­lenged.”

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