Stealth enabled a new American way of warfare, permitting air operations throughout the depth of the theater from the opening days of a conflict. In essence, the United States could now go downtown on the first night of the war, rather than having to fight a protracted battle to roll back the adversary’s air defenses. The next generation of stealth aircraft, the F-22 and F-35, will guarantee U.S. air supremacy for decades to come.
What stealth technology did for the U.S. military in the late 20th Century, hypersonics will do for it in this century. Hypersonic flight means traveling at more than Mach 5 (or 3,700 miles per hour). A hypersonic vehicle would enable extremely rapid reconnaissance or strike anywhere in the world. Hypersonic vehicles could also be used to launch payloads into low Earth orbit, vastly reducing launch complexity and cost. Hypersonic technology could be applied to weapons as well as platforms. Hypersonic missiles would enable improved engagements of so-called fleeting targets. Such a missile could also defeat most current defenses. The ability to achieve this objective will create revolutionary opportunities in national security as well as open up exciting new possibilities in science and even commercial travel.
The key to the future is the ability to achieve airbreathing hypersonic flight. Hypersonic- powered aircraft could be launched and recovered from existing airfields and even aircraft carriers. Unlike rockets or missiles, they would employ airbreathing ramjet engines in the atmosphere, reducing the need to carry oxygen internally just to get off the ground. Only in the upper atmosphere would these vehicles employ internal fuel to maintain hypersonic flight.
The National Aerospace Initiative (NAI), which is intended to ensure continued American preeminence in aerospace technologies, has set a target of Mach 12 flight by 2012. The NAI was envisioned as a collaborative effort between NASA, the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community. Much work remains to be done to realize the potential of hypersonic flight in such areas as airbreathing propulsion, high temperature materials, aerodynamics and vehicle controls.
At present, neither the Defense Department nor NASA are spending much money developing hypersonic capabilities. This is worrisome because the United States is not alone in its pursuit of hypersonic technology. China, Russia and Europe are also in the race. One way to leverage what resources are being spent on hypersonics is to increase that degree of collaboration among U.S. Agencies. The program needs stable funding, a clearer roadmap and the avoidance of duplicative efforts.
In the 21st century, threats will likely arise swiftly and in unpredictable locations. The United States will require new capabilities that will allow for rapid response, in a matter of hours, rather than days or even weeks. National security will have a need for speed.
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