Hyping Hypersonic Missiles: Do We Need the Speed?

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U.S. Air Force

The X-51A Waverider demonstrated hypersonic flight

Is it a good thing for the U.S. military to be able to hit any target anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes? That used to be a sci-fi question, but it's becoming reality as the Air Force develops a new class of long-range hypersonic missiles. Back when the U.S. was pitted against the Soviet Union in a half-century-long quest to prove what was better — capitalism or communism? — pushing the technological envelope was vital for bragging rights and military superiority, as well as to buff up each side's political system. The atom bomb: U.S. 1, U.S.S.R. 0. Then came Sputnik, and the score was tied at 1 apiece. Then Apollo and putting a man on the moon — game, set, match.

On June 30, Air Force boosters gathered to discuss the impact of adding to the Pentagon's arsenal hypersonic missiles, which can reach at least Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. The topic has grown serious since the May 26 test flight of the X-51A Waverider aircraft over the Pacific, following a six-year, $250 million effort to develop a missile capable of flying 600 miles in 10 minutes. Such a missile could be developed in a decade with adequate funding, backers say. May's flight was a giant leap toward that goal. "This test opens the door for hypersonic weapons capable of prompt global strike," said Brigadier General William J. Thornton, a key Air Force weapons tester.

Carried under the wing of a B-52, the 14-ft., tungsten-nosed X-51A looks like a flying Dustbuster, designed to let it ride the shock wave its speed generates. In its first-ever flight, a scramjet engine — cooled ingeniously by its own fuel — pushed it to about 3,000 m.p.h. for three minutes before falling into the ocean. (The longest previous flight of such technology had lasted only 12 seconds.) Keeping an engine operating at such speeds has been likened to keeping a match burning in a hurricane. "We equate this leap in engine technology as equivalent to the post–World War II jump from propeller-driven aircraft to jet engines," Air Force program manager Charlie Brink said after the brief — but historic — flight of the Boeing-Rocketdyne vehicle.

But the notion of a missile capable of traveling a mile a second raises a question: Just because something can be done, should it be done? The U.S. military's challenge has never been hitting a target so much as it has been hitting the right target. Recall its inability to kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998. Back then, it was using relatively slow-moving cruise missiles. "It is worth noting that the 80-minute fly-out time of the conventional cruise missiles used in the attack would have been cut to just over 12 minutes if a Mach-6 hypersonic-missile system had been available," Air Force scholar Richard Hallion noted in a paper presented at the recent hypersonic confab in Arlington, Va.

But time isn't usually the problem. There was that bombing that missed Saddam Hussein in the opening salvo of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, although it destroyed the house where U.S. intelligence said he was hiding. Then there was the cruise-missile strike against a Sudanese drug factory in 1998 because the U.S. thought it was making nerve agent, a claim never proven and disputed worldwide. In 1999, a B-2 bomber mistakenly hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war because of an out-of-date map.

The missed opportunity to kill bin Laden is a constant theme when hypersonic weapons are discussed. The U.S. military loves new and improved technology and is always looking for shortfalls that could have been bridged if only the nation had invested in better weapons. When the Soviet Union collapsed, for example, many experts felt President Reagan's Star Wars missile shield would die too. But it limped along for several years, until the North Koreans saved it in 1998 by launching a three-stage missile.

While the flight didn't achieve its purported goal of putting a satellite into orbit, it did succeed in pumping additional billions of U.S. dollars into the nation's $100 billion investment in missile defense.

Likewise, the failure of a fleet of eight U.S. military helicopters to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran in 1980 led to the $50 billion V-22 program. The military was profoundly embarrassed by the Iran-hostage snafu, in which three short-range helicopters broke down, and wanted to make sure it would never happen again. So far it has succeeded in that effort. But that's not because the Pentagon now has a fleet of V-22s capable of long-range missions; it's because such missions are extraordinarily rare, and there hasn't been a similar one since.

Hallion's report concluded by warning that the Pentagon's current arsenal is "not sufficiently timely to meet the growing challenges of 21st century rogue states and irresponsible actors who have access to advanced weaponry and a willingness to use it against America and its friends." But, unlike many weapons boosters, he added a key admonition about how things might have turned out that day when the U.S. tried to kill bin Laden with a barrage of those slow-moving — 550 m.p.h. — cruise missiles. "It must be emphasized that one cannot say with certainty," he noted, "that a hypersonic-missile attack would have had any greater luck." Given our inability to find bin Laden in the 12 years since, it's a caveat worth remembering before the nation spends billions on another quicksilver bullet.