America’s hypersonic enterprise appears to be crossing a key juncture this summer.
After years of struggle, including numerous test failures, programs like the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon and Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept appear to be hitting their strides — including full-up test flights at hypersonic speed.
This concrete progress, paired with continued support from Congress and the Biden administration’s decision to sign Defense Production Act initiatives targeting the hypersonic industrial base, give reason for optimism.
However, it’s far too early to claim victory, and we must stay focused on the end objective.
The United States finds itself clawing from behind in the current hypersonic race with China and Russia for a very simple reason: Leaders squandered the decisive hypersonic advantage America gained in the 1960s through programs like the X-15. Irregular funding, scattershot hypersonic efforts, and a lack of urgency yielded an array of haphazard programs.
Most failed to deliver as advertised, while the on-again, off-again approach made it incredibly hard to maintain and sustain expertise. Even as recently as 2013, the Air Force chose to conclude its X-51 hypersonic test program after four flights, even though two were successful and the final one set a record for the longest air-breathing hypersonic flight.
Despite this promising trajectory, the team was disbanded and funding distributed to other priorities. By contrast, the X-15 flew 199 times between 1959 and 1968. This afforded tremendous learning and secured concrete progress.
With China and Russia progressing rapidly on their own hypersonic programs, U.S. leaders were shocked into action a few years after the X-51 effort concluded. The military launched numerous programs, involving multiple services.
Making up for decades lost is a difficult, costly proposition. Military officials worked incredibly hard to generate a new bench of talent, fight for ample funding, and educate key audiences about the hypersonic imperative. We are just beginning to see positive results from this surge, and we must maintain this sense of urgency.
Launching multiple lines of effort provided leaders with a set of options. Successful programs could be scaled up and underperforming programs terminated. The military deserves credit for allowing teams the opportunity to learn through failure.
While initial hypersonic successes should be celebrated, it is crucial to recognize that America is still in a very tight race. Positive test results should not be conflated with an operational set of capabilities.
Pentagon officials, the services, Congress, and the various teams developing the technology must maintain a laser focus to move from the lab to the front lines. From a government perspective, this demands stable requirements, bureaucratic top cover and funding that is both predictable and ample. Industry needs to keep pressing hard, ensure smart execution and deliver results that will translate effectively to the operational realm.
Amid the rush for hypersonic technology, it is also important for military strategists and planners to think about how it would best be employed. This is not a race for technology’s sake; it is all about pragmatic combat results.
The first application of hypersonic technology will be strike. Given that, what are the specific applications where hypersonic attributes will net significant results for the combatant commands? Flying above Mach 5 obviously compresses the kill chain, conquers distance challenges, and circumvents most enemy defenses.
Cost also must factor into the equation. Different approaches — namely air-launched versus ground-launched — produce vastly different expense figures. They also yield different employment considerations. Military leaders need to think about these factors now.
Finally, it is crucial to consider the broader enterprise that will be required to transform a host of research and development efforts into operational scale. We need to bolster the ground test and flight test infrastructure, consider the advantages afforded by digital engineering, invest in production centers and cultivate necessary human capital at scale.
All of these challenges are surmountable, but success demands careful consideration and smart execution. We cannot assume it will just happen. This hypersonic journey has been far from easy, but the threat environment demands we stay the course.
Douglas A. Birkey is executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.