On March 9, the landscape and history of high-speed flight changed dramatically when Stratolaunch successfully flew the Talon-A1 (TA-1) hypersonic test vehicle off the West Coast of California. TA-1 flew at high supersonic speeds approaching Mach 5, or nearly five times the speed of sound. On this maiden flight, the vehicle didn’t break any speed or altitude records, nor did it demonstrate a new exotic propulsion system or some new exotic material. Despite its impressive potential to advance the state of the art of U.S. hypersonics, TA-1′s real achievement was proving the power and willingness of American industry to take the first step to meet critical national defense needs during this time of the great power competition.

Developed by Stratolaunch, Talon-A is designed to operate for sustained periods in the atmosphere at more than five times the speed of sound.

Developed by Stratolaunch and powered by rocket engines built by Ursa Major using additive manufacturing, Talon-A is designed to operate for sustained periods in the atmosphere at more than five times the speed of sound. Future Talon-A flights will be fully reusable, offering unprecedented opportunities for comprehensive analysis of materials and equipment carried during the test, and rapid turnaround of the vehicle.

Talon and its successors will provide several key capabilities to U.S. and allied national security. First, this reusable hypersonic platform offers key tools to technology developers of future weapons and other vehicles. Second, it stands to enhance our own defenses against such weapons. The first time our military sees a hypersonic threat should not be when it really counts. Talon-A offers an unmatched opportunity for the U.S. military to test its defensive systems’ capabilities – including early warning, detection, and tracking– and to conduct realistic training against such weapons.

This capability is being delivered by Stratolaunch not a moment too soon. Other countries such as China and Russia have already developed and deployed hypersonic weapons that challenge our defenses and have the potential to hold American military and civilian assets at risk. Hypersonic missiles, combining speed with unpredictable maneuverability, dramatically compress the timescale on the battlefield and can hold at risk key assets such as aircraft carriers and forward bases, and even our homeland. Our competitors have been delivering these weapons to their warfighters, and Russia has recently used them against Ukraine. While the United States has successfully flown several boost glide and air-breathing hypersonic weapons concepts, the U. S. has yet to transition hypersonic capability out of research and development and into the hands of the warfighter. This creates a battlefield asymmetry that we simply cannot allow to persist. This is especially disturbing given that hypersonics were invented in our country, and until the early 2000s we had a seemingly insurmountable lead.

How are we losing a technology race in a field that we pioneered? One of the key impediments to the timely delivery of hypersonic weapons in the U.S. has been the lack of test infrastructure–including both wind tunnels and flight test. Stratolaunch’s Talon-A program is designed to address this problem by providing low-cost, recoverable/reusable flight test vehicles that can be used as wind tunnels in the sky, providing opportunities for engineers to test advanced window and vehicle materials, sensors, antennas, novel leading-edge concepts, thermal management concepts, engines, and other technologies in an actual hypersonic flight environment. When the Talon-A is fully operational, it will be available to fly on a weekly basis, dramatically increasing the nation’s current flight test tempo of once every few months. The ability to recover and reuse the Talon-A craft, along with its experimental payload, will reduce operating costs and add considerably to the quality and quantity of test data.

The United States rose to this challenge before when NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Navy jointly operated the X-15 rocket plane program in the 1960s. Often considered the gold standard for experimental aircraft, the three X-15 piloted vehicles flew over 199 times in the span of about a decade, setting records and acquiring data that was crucial to our fundamental understanding of high-speed flight. These flights also contributed to the successful design of subsequent spacecraft.

Unlike the X-15, the Talon-A program has been funded entirely by Stratolaunch, which responded to a demand signal from the Pentagon for more hypersonic fight test capability. They built a cutting-edge high-speed vehicle without government funding or oversight. Stratolaunch is not unlike the Boeing company of 90 years ago, which developed the legendary B-17 bomber entirely on its own dime, risking its very existence, and in so doing helped the allies win World War II.

At a time when the Department of Defense is asking industry to step up and do more, Stratolaunch represents an exemplar, rising to the occasion to address the technical challenge of building a cutting-edge high-speed flight vehicle without relying on the government. This enabled a much more streamlined and accelerated development cycle, built a team that is now a national resource and delivered a capability that can be used to accelerate a broad range of DoD programs. The DoD is smart to encourage and leverage this type of initiative across the industrial base and to make the investments necessary to utilize industry developed capabilities once they have been delivered. Through partnerships with the Air Force Research Laboratory, U.S. Navy and the OSD Test Resource Management Center the government is starting to benefit from Stratolaunch capabilities. However, for public-private partnerships to succeed in helping to fast-track the nation’s hypersonic strike and counter hypersonic weapons programs, this trend must accelerate. The time for DoD to leverage industry investments in hypersonic capabilities is now.

About the Authors

Dr. Thomas R. Bussing

Dr. Thomas R. Bussing- Dr. Bussing is the former Vice President and Deputy General Manager of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. Prior to Lockheed, Dr. Bussing served as the Vice President of the Advanced Missile Systems product line for Raytheon Missile Systems, where he oversaw the development of Raytheon’s advanced missile programs, including all its Hypersonic programs, and oversaw multiple acquisitions and integrations.

Dr. Mark J. Lewis

Dr. Lewis is chief executive officer of the Purdue Applied Research Institute (PARI). Previously he served dual roles in the Pentagon as the acting deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering and director of defense research and engineering for modernization. He has also held positions as chief scientist of the Air Force, founder of the Center for Hypersonics Education and Research and the NASA-Air Force Constellation University Institutes Project, director of the Institute for Defense Analyses’ Science and Technology Policy Institute, and executive director for the NDIA Emerging Technologies Institute.

Mr. Michael E. White

Mr. White recently retired from DoD as the Principal Director for Hypersonics (PD,H) in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering OUSD(R&E). In that capacity he was responsible for leading the Nation’s vision and strategy for developing offensive and defensive warfighting capability enabled by hypersonic systems.

Admiral James A. Winnefeld Jr.

Admiral Winnefeld is a retired United States Navy admiral who served as the ninth vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is a frequently published author and a director or advisory board member for companies operating in a broad spectrum of business sectors, and co-chairs the non-profit SAFE Project.