The US Navy has fired an emerging hypersonic “prototype” round as far as 109 nautical miles in only two minutes, marking a potential breakthrough in the realm of high-speed attack at five-times the speed of sound.
Hypersonic Missile Launch
Weapons developers describe the projectile as a “hypersonic body shape,” and say that the prototype was fired at White Sands Missile Range from an electromagnetic gun.
“We were able to gather data, prove the ability to gather data in hypersonic regimes and take that data and share it with academia and our partners. We were able to prove our models, test out our components, technologies and subsystems,” Adam Jones, Advanced Hypersonic & Guided Weapons Division Head, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, told an audience at the 2022 Sea Air Space Symposium.
Several key areas of ongoing inquiry, likely to be greatly advanced by this prototype shot, are what Jones referred to as boundary layer transition and thermal heating. Each of these are crucial areas of hypersonic flight necessary to ensure flight path trajectory, speed, targeting and in-flight thermal stability.
Video Above: Long Range Hypersonic Weapons
Temperature is, among other things, crucial to hypersonic flight as projectiles traveling at Mach 5 speeds can easily overheat and either explode or veer off course. To counter this risk, engineers regularly build hypersonic projectiles with special advanced, heat resistant materials to ensure a smooth, uninterrupted flight path.
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These dynamics also pertain to Jones’ comment about “boundary layer,” a term referring to the air flow surrounding a hypersonic projectile. Weapons developers work to ensure that the air flow or “boundary layer” surrounding the weapon in flight is “laminar” or smooth, as opposed to “turbulent.” A turbulent air flow can cause molecules to move around between layers surrounding the projectile and possibly cause the round to overheat or simply veer off course.
“We are learning how to fly at Mach Five. We also looked at the functional areas across Hypersonics Applied Materials, high temperature and advanced structural materials guidance, navigation control and hypersonic body shape,” Jones said.
How soon might this projectile and gun be operational on board a warship? What might that mean to tactical commanders? White Sands Missile Range, N.M., has a “desert ship” test environment to assess Naval weapons systems from the test range in the desert, yet further kinds of integration and testing may be needed before the weapon can fully integrate into a ship’s weapon system.
However, firing hypersonic weapons from the deck of a destroyer or cruiser may not be that far away, and it is something which promises to reshape the paradigms for maritime attack.
For instance, should a forward operating drone be able to locate an approaching fleet of small attack boats approaching the horizon, identify land-launchers for anti-ship guided missiles or even detect enemy warships from greater standoff ranges than previously possible, ship commanders could fire off a hypersonic missile to destroy the target in minutes if not seconds.
The principle advantage of hypersonics is simply ….”time,” the speed at which they can hit an enemy target massively shortens the response curve for potential enemies. Ship or shore defenses, for example, would simply be quite challenged to see and respond to an approaching hypersonic projectile fast enough, a circumstance making them quite vulnerable.