The Pentagon’s $11 billion request to fund hypersonic missile development and testing highlights the urgent need to improve the U.S. military’s capabilities for this potentially game-changing technology.
The importance of this request was underscored recently by U.S. Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. These efforts align with the Biden administration’s invocation of the Defense Production Act to boost the defense industrial base to “meet the hypersonic warfighting mission.”
New technologies often require new testing infrastructures to ensure their proper function and safe use. George Nacouzi, a senior engineer at the RAND Corporation, echoed this sentiment.
“One of the things that’s limiting us is how fast we can develop and how fast we can test them,” Nacouzi said.
It’s evident that hypersonic weapons will play a pivotal role in the future of national defense, and it’s imperative that they be rapidly yet thoroughly and efficiently tested prior to deployment.
Considerations for Accelerating Successful Hypersonic Missile Testing
As with any cutting-edge military technology, research, development, testing and evaluation (RDT&E) is essential to maximize safety, reliability and accuracy. When dealing with a weapon as powerful as a hypersonic missile, those factors are paramount.
The speed of sound — 760 miles per hour — is known as Mach 1. Anything that travels more than five times the speed of sound (3,800 mph) is considered hypersonic. It is the intersection of extreme speed, maneuverability and range of hypersonic weapons that make them exceptionally unique and valuable for national defense.
However, the qualities that make hypersonic missiles desirable for national security missions are the same characteristics that make them so challenging to test.
To hasten testing a hypersonic missile, engineers can engage in extensive modeling ahead of time based on existing data and estimates. The process is highly scientific, iterative and involves rapid prototyping. Fortunately, each test provides additional information which leads to an improved design and better data.
The use of telemetry devices stationed at points spread across thousands of miles can measure how well a test performs. Through the data collected, engineers can deepen their understanding of the technology and improve the design used in the next launch.
Additionally, small sensor payloads used on sounding rockets — which mimic the various environmental conditions experienced when integrated into a hypersonic weapon — can enhance safety, communications, avionics, navigation and overall weapon accuracy. Sounding rockets fill a critical gap between ground testing and full system flight testing. The relatively lower cost of deploying a sounding rocket allows for more frequent flight tests to help gather critical data for hypersonic weapons development.
Further considerations for testing include variations in weather, resulting in different atmospheric pressures, wind, heat and friction. The extreme speed of hypersonic missiles causes friction that produces temperatures of up to several thousand degrees Fahrenheit. Engineers must also consider the safety of those who live near the trajectory path. Moreover, cybersecurity concerns must be accounted for with planning the test launch and handling test data.
While there is undoubtedly an urgent need to develop and deploy these weapons, safety and security must be assured at all stages. Therefore, significant precautions and extensive testing must be undertaken regardless of the additional time required — the stakes are simply too high. The upfront time and costs associated with responsible RDT&E will be well worth the initial investment.
That’s not to say that the testing process needs to be unnecessarily arduous. It’s crucial that experienced organizations and expert engineers are engaged to optimize the efficiency and outcome of each test.
Looking Ahead to Drive Innovation
Continual innovation is required to achieve the Defense Department’s goal of successfully fielding hypersonic missiles. For instance, engineers are working on developing and deploying novel collection mechanisms that place a broad array of instrument sensors close to a hypersonic vehicle’s flight path and point of impact to obtain relevant testing data.
These mechanisms may include developing a single networked architecture to rapidly share telemetry and test data; developing and operating an open ocean range system that incorporates sensors based on ships, barges and unmanned maritime systems; and incorporating advanced data collection using aerial drones.
Additionally, telemetry data and geospatial rendering is now so advanced that encrypted data can be displayed and viewed from remote locations live which allows a hypersonic missile’s orientation in space to be observable at all times. This technology enables accurate, real-time decision-making which will be critical once hypersonic weapons are used for national defense missions.
The best and brightest throughout the defense community must come together to improve our nation’s hypersonic missile capabilities. It’s crucial that efficient but thorough testing be completed so that our armed forces have full confidence in these weapons once deployed. The defense of our nation is of the utmost importance, and hypersonic missiles will play a major role in the future of our armed forces.
Kevin Kelly is CEO of Arcfield, a provider of systems engineering and integration, C5ISR and digital transformation services for air, sea, land, space and cyber domains.
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