WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The end of American dominance in the class of hypersonic weaponry can be traced back to a steady decline in research and experimentation that began more than a decade ago, scholars and military insiders say, and the U.S. is only now beginning to fully reinvest in the cutting-edge work necessary to keep pace with its highly motivated, well-financed adversaries.
As Pentagon officials warn that Russia and China are outpacing the U.S. in the race to build the world’s fastest planes and radar-defying missiles, American universities and laboratories say there has been a major challenge to the often tedious research work crucial to national security.
Purdue University hypersonics researchers said it was clear years ago that the U.S. was about to face a major global challenge and that their work would play a pivotal role in turning the tide.
“I think a lot of us saw that coming, I would say even five, 10 years ago,” said Joseph S. Jewell, an assistant professor at Purdue’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Mr. Jewell is one member of a team working on hypersonic technology, including experiments at the Indiana school’s Boeing/AFOSR Mach-6 Quiet Tunnel, a project financed 20 years ago by Boeing and the Air Force’s office of scientific research.
The wind tunnel, housed in a nondescript warehouse adjacent to Purdue’s small airport, helps researchers study how turbulence affects vehicles traveling at Mach 6 or higher — the kinds of speeds now viewed as top military priorities in Washington, Moscow and Beijing. The tunnel is just one piece of a broad slate of research projects at universities, government laboratories and private defense firms across the country.
That research, analysts say, eventually will benefit all corners of the military and the broader defense industrial base. Hypersonic technology will yield missiles that are faster and more maneuverable than ever before, planes that can travel at previously unimaginable speeds, weapons that threaten to render current defense systems obsolete, and a host of other remarkable advances.
“It’ll affect every part of what we do,” said retired Air Force Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, now president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association.
The trade association sponsored an inaugural conference July 30-Aug. 1 at Purdue focused entirely on hypersonics, attracting weapons specialists and academics from across the country full of fascination — and concern.
Mr. Jewell said lawmakers, the media and others have grown interested as it becomes more evident that the U.S. military has a great deal of work to do just to catch up with its adversaries.
“The best way to describe it in my personal view … is that we should be concerned,” said Mr. Jewell, a former scientist at the hypersonics branch of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. “I’m concerned. I think most people are concerned.”
The U.S., “by virtue of our space program and the significant investments in aerospace we’d made over the years, built up a large technical lead,” he said. “And it’s certainly fair to say that’s been eroding significantly and much more quickly over the last 10 years than before.”
Russian weapon ‘invulnerable’
That erosion stems from the confluence of two factors. At the same time the amount of American research has declined, funding and experimentation in China and Russia have dramatically increased, specialists say.
In a widely reported event, Russian President Vladimir Putin in December watched a successful test of the new Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle and declared it “invulnerable to intercept by any existing and prospective missile defense means of the potential adversary.”
Saying the Avangard could be deployed sometime this year, Mr. Putin boasted that the test was an “excellent New Year’s gift to the nation.”
Although there are a host of specific examples, scholars point to the lack of U.S. testing of hypersonic aircraft called “scramjets,” or supersonic-combustion ramjets. Defined by NASA as “a ramjet engine in which the airflow through the engine remains supersonic,” the craft are vital to keeping pace in the high-stakes world of hypersonics, specialists say.
But testing of scramjets has dropped off significantly in recent years, creating a dangerous gap in U.S. capabilities.
“I will remind you the United States flew the first scramjet engine on an integrated vehicle in 2004. In 2010, the U.S. Air Force flew the first what I would call operational scramjet, an engine that could operate as long as you gave it fuel,” Mark Lewis, director of the Science and Technology Policy Institute at the Institute for Defense Analyses, said during a speech at the National Defense Industrial Association conference.
“The last flight of that engine was 2013. Well, welcome to 2019. So it’s been six years. We’re on track to maybe fly something at the end of this year, maybe early next year,” he said. “You don’t make progress if your programs are spaced decades apart. So it’s not surprising that we find ourselves challenged.”
Military leaders don’t deny that the nation has lost focus on hypersonics over the past decade, and they readily acknowledge that the U.S. hasn’t embraced the kind of broad, big-picture strategy seen in China.
“We have had fits and starts over the years in that hypersonic technology, which I believe is a mistake,” Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said last month during Senate confirmation hearings. President Trump has nominated Gen. Hyten to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Inside the Defense Department, hypersonics technology is now a top priority. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are pushing the Pentagon to go even further and create an office dedicated entirely to hypersonics.
The defense industry, led by trade groups such as the National Defense Industrial Association, is seeking to foster closer cooperation between defense firms and academia to get better products to market more quickly, but structural problems have kept the U.S. behind China and Russia, analysts say. At the most basic level, the very nature of the top-down, government-controlled Chinese system has allowed Beijing to move more quickly.
In the U.S., the military, defense contractors and academic institutions have yet to find a way to work together seamlessly toward a common goal.
“We need to learn how do to that — the government, industry and everyone we work with,” said John Schmisseur, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Tennessee. “What’s missing in the United States is that strong vertical integration.”