China’s deadly “carrier killer” hypersonic ballistic missile — the Dong-Feng 21 — can reportedly reach speeds of up to Mach 5 and beyond.
Experts say, it doesn’t even need a warhead. At those speeds, if it hit a carrier, it would pass right through, and potentially put it out of action.
Now imagine a hypersonic missile, armed with a new technology — a technology that would shoot a laser in its path, elevating the weapon to even greater speeds, such as Mach 20.
All the while, executing abrupt changes in trajectory to avoid detection and robust air defence systems, as it sped toward its target.
Sound like science fiction? It’s not … the technology is on the drawing board.
Interest in hypersonic weapons and vehicles have literally exploded (pardon the pun) across the aerospace defense-industrial complex, with massive contracting opportunities popping up across the board, Brett Tingley of The War Zone reports.
In fact, the Pentagon’s appetite for hypersonic weapons has grown so immense and pressing that it has issued contracting opportunities for what appears to be literally any hypersonic technology.
As it turns out, these two cutting edge areas of defense research are beginning to converge in laboratories with the goal of enabling unprecedented levels of speed for aerial weapons, the report said.
By combining advanced directed energy technology with the latest in hypersonic vehicle design, researchers in private and Department of Defense (DoD) funded laboratories have laid the groundwork for systems designed to literally sheathe an entire vehicle in laser and/or microwave-induced plasma in order to drastically reduce drag.
If successfully developed, this concept may someday lead to new frontiers in speed and radical new forms of aerodynamic control and aircraft design, the report said.
It’s no surprise then, that hypersonic systems are becoming integral to the United States’ military’s future strategy in key theaters such as the Indo-Pacific region, where China currently holds the advantage in cruise missiles.
Meanwhile, R&D has already led to several systems approaching operational status.
The USAF and Lockheed Martin are working on the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), a boost-glide hypersonic system.
The wedge-shaped ARRW has been tested in captive flights on a B-52 Stratofortress and is expected to be operational by 2022.
Meanwhile, the Army and Navy, in conjunction with the Missile Defense Agency, have tested their own hypersonic delivery system, the Common Hypersonic Glide Body vehicle, or C-HGB.
There are a number of other initiatives underway as well, including air-breathing hypersonic cruise missile designs, such as DARPA’s HAWC program, and a multitude of classified efforts, the report said.
Since at least the 1980s, many leading aerospace laboratories have explored the concept of “energy deposition” in order to reduce drag.
This concept involves beaming energy in the form of laser filaments, electric arcs, or microwave radiation along the leading edges or just in front of an aircraft in order to condition the air to be more conducive to high-speed flight, the report said.
In a 1983 NASA-funded study conducted by the BDM Corporation and authored by Leik Myrabo, pioneer of the laser lightcraft propulsion concept, Myrabo proposed using lasers to literally explode the air in front of a high-speed craft.
Myrabo’s initial concept centered on a “laser-supported detonation,” or LSD wave, that would create a detached shockwave “at some distance in advance of the leading edge,” which would theoretically “do the work of pushing the atmosphere out of the way and thereby suppress the formation of a strong bow shock and the associated wave drag.”
While Myrabo’s radical concept never left the ground, R&D in this area has rapidly advanced.
A 2004 report commissioned by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) studied “plasmas generated by electron beams and high-voltage nanosecond pulses” and explored “aerodynamic steering using plasma energy addition” using a “microwave-driven supersonic plasma wind tunnel,” the report said.
Not to be outdone, a 2015 study by the Naval Research Laboratory titled “Guiding Supersonic Projectiles Using Optically Generated Air Density Channels” states that a “channel of reduced air density can be generated by the energy deposited from filamentation of an intense femtosecond laser pulse” and that this channel could be used to control the trajectory of flying projectiles.
NASA also conducted a study in 2017 at the Langley Research Center into the “experimental determination of the drag reduction and energetic efficiency” of laser discharges ahead of simulated aircraft traveling at high speeds, and the Department of Energy (DOE) has looked into the same concept for increasing the performance of wind turbines, the report said.
But while the levels of power required for energy deposition systems are indeed possible, the accompanying weight that must be accommodated into any aircraft drag reduction system would offset some of the gains, says Dr. David Van Wie, head of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory’s Air and Missile Defense.
“A one-megawatt generator riding on a turbine engine is a fairly heavy system to get integrated into any practical aircraft,” said Van Wie, who has published extensively on energy deposition drag reduction systems and other plasma-based aerodynamic concepts.
“It’s not that you couldn’t do it, but it ends up being a weight challenge to generate any appropriate level of power to have a reasonable drag reduction.”
He pointed out that efficiency is key to energy depositions for drag reduction, as the levels of drag reduction must be weighed against the added weight and power requirement.
“The real question is what kind of efficiency can I get on a system that’s more optimized for a flight vehicle, an aerodynamic shape, which is fundamentally designed to not have a lot of drag,” he told The War Zone.
Alongside the burgeoning hypersonic revolution, directed energy systems continue to become smaller and more powerful, and applications like the energy deposition concepts seem far more possible than they were in decades past.
It’s no stretch to say that directed energy systems could eventually be miniaturized and efficient enough to be used in drag reduction or flow control system.
And should this turn out to be successful, or even remotely successful, such a technology would represent a total game-changer.