Australia, US Cooperate to Develop High-Tech Cruise Missiles
The United States and Australia have joined forces to build hypersonic air-launched cruise missiles that could shift the balance of military power in the Asia-Pacific region.
Defense officials see hypersonic as a potentially game-changing weapon. Their ability to travel at speeds in excess of Mach 5 with extraordinary maneuverability could provide the US and allied forces with new fast attack options capable of paralyzing enemy defenses, experts say.
The new US-Australia project known as the Integrated Southern Cross Aviation Research Experiment, or SCIFiRE, is the Allied Prototyping Initiative officially announced by the two countries in December. The goal is to advance hypersonic air-breathing technology into a full-size prototype that is cost-effective and provides “flexible long-range capability, culminating in demonstration flight under relevant operational conditions.”
“This initiative will be essential to the future of hypersonic research and development, ensuring the US and our allies lead the world in advancing this transformational warfare capability,” Michael Kratsios, US deputy secretary of defense for research and engineering, told a news conference.
Top Australian officials have also heralded bilateral efforts.
“The SCIFiRE initiative is another opportunity to advance… our Air Combat Capability Program to support a joint force effect to advance Australia’s security and prosperity,” said Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, head of the Australian Air Force.
“Working with our defense scientists here in Australia and our partners in the US Air Force and throughout the US Department of Defense … we are maximizing our learning during development to better define capabilities and needs as systems mature,” he added.
While Pentagon officials are not in doubt about the fact that developing and deploying hypersonics is a top priority to keep pace with China, Australia’s 2020 Defense Strategic Update only goes so far as to say that the government’s plans for acquiring advanced strike capabilities will “potentially”. including hypersonic weapons.
However, technology is also a high priority for Canberra, although the language in the document is “a bit vague,” said Malcolm Davis, senior defense analyst at the Australian Institute of Strategic Policy, a leading think-tank.
“The way Australia does policy, I think maybe a little more cautious in its public statements than the US,” he said. “But when you look under the surface and you talk to people in defense, it’s a very different picture. They are very focused on this. They were very clear where they were going.
“The fact that we have now signed this agreement with the United States just months after the release of the defense strategic update should tell you that we are deeply committed to developing hypersonic weapons,” he added.
Concerns about China motivated Canberra’s push for a new long-range strike capability.
Although the defense strategic reform does not explicitly identify China as a threat, “everyone knows what that document is about,” Davis said.
The Pentagon has a number of other hypersonic projects underway such as the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, also known as ARRW or “Arrow,” which will use a rocket to propel the system into its launch phase.
However, SCIFiRE’s pursuit of air-breathing propulsion technology could offer the advantage of allowing hypersonic missiles to be carried by a variety of tactical aircraft rather than rocket propulsion systems.
“Scramjet technology in cruise missiles enables us to build hypersonic weapons that are cheaper and smaller – small enough to fit into our fighter aircraft inventory,” US Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper told reporters during the Event. Defense Writers Group. “As we expected [aircraft] programs like the F-15EX which can carry quite a number of weapons externally, have something that can be a hypersonic attack platform that more closely creates another puzzle for the enemy. “
Davis said the system could be carried by Australian F / A-18F Super Hornets, and possibly by robotic wingmen designed to accompany fighter jets into combat.
Boeing Australia has built the drone Airpower Teaming System, and the US Air Force has its own wingman robot program known as Skyborg.
Jim Faist, the Pentagon’s director of defense research and engineering for advanced capabilities, noted that digital engineering tools will be used to explore options.
“We are trying to build digital twins from this system,” he said in an interview. “Hopefully, through digital twins, we can accelerate the transition to various types of platforms. … That’s part of the design work at SCIFiRE. We will look at the ease of integration on the different platforms we have in the service. “
While the new cruise missiles will initially be used in aircraft, Davis envisions the technology developing over time into sea or land launched systems.
“It is a hypersonic attack weapon launched from the air to strike ground targets or maritime targets, but also paves the way for a much more capable long-range weapon system on the track,” Davis said.
In particular, the two countries intend to keep these weapons conventional and not armed with nuclear warheads.
Pentagon officials see a number of advantages to partnering with Australia.
Previous US treaty allies are key contributors to a long-running joint research initiative known as the International Hypersonic Aviation Research Experiment program, or HIFiRE, which explores the science of technology basics and its potential for next-generation aviation systems.
Building new prototypes and putting them through their paces will require complex infrastructure such as wind tunnels for the development cycle as well as a range that can accommodate full-scale test flight, Faist noted.
Australia has “world class” flight testing capabilities, he added, including the facilities at Woomera.
Australians also carry a lot of knowledge, US officials say.
“They are really good at hypersonic science and technology and… they’ve been working with us for a long time. And we love working with them, “said Robert Joseph, chief scientist of the US Air Force.
In addition, the Asia-Pacific allies will bear a “fair share” of the costs of the SCIFiRE project, Faist said. “They have had a tremendous investment in this program.”
Canberra’s force structure plan released in 2020 allocates $ 9.3 billion for high-speed long-range attack and missile defense, including hypersonic development, testing and evaluation. The Pentagon is also investing billions of dollars in its hypersonic portfolio.
Faist declined to say how much funding the two sides had allocated to SCIFiRE specifically, but noted that it would be a “bigger budget” R&D effort.
There is also an intention to pursue co-production of the system, which can help lower costs.
When are the new weapons ready for war?
“I hope that in the next few months when we share our technical data, we will have a better understanding of how fast we can field, but I don’t predict for long,” Roper told reporters in December.
Scramjet [propulsion technology development] moving faster than I expected, “said Roper. “I estimate it will take longer for the hypersonic engine to mature. And thanks to some extraordinary approaches to manufacturing, this period of acceleration forced us to keep going and start thinking about future record programs. “
The ARRW program started in 2017, and production could start as early as 2021, he said. “I think we can go as fast as a scramjet.”
Faist said flight testing will be completed by 2025, but officials hope to speed up that schedule.
For Australia, “the aim is to make this kind of capability operational in this decade, because this is a dangerous decade in which we will face the greatest risk from China,” Davis said.
It is possible that the new weapons could be ready in the next few years, he said.
“We’ve been doing this research for some time in the university sector,” he said. “We have a deep background, a foundation of scientific research, development, and understanding, and I think that will hopefully speed up their process of taking that from basically a science experiment to an operational part of capabilities much faster than if we started from scratch now. “
Steps were taken to help the technology cross the so-called “Death Valley” between large-scale R&D and production.
Faist said there is a commitment between the two countries to switch to a record program if the project is successful.
Although Faist’s office launched the Allied Prototyping Initiative, the Air Force Lifecycle Management Center and arms program executive officers are responsible for implementing SCIFiRE. The same office will also be responsible for overseeing follow-up efforts after prototyping and flight testing is complete, Faist said.
“That’s another part of the decision on where to do this program,” he said. “It makes sense to really build on the program management side of the Air Force internal capabilities to manage and execute at SCIFiRE, so that the same team can exit the program of record.”
Faist said sourcing for SCIFiRE was not finished, but that in general the Pentagon wanted to have multiple suppliers. The advanced record program will be contested again, he said.
The weapons are likely to be purchased in bulk equivalent to an air-launched tactical cruise missile, Faist said.
“Usually you will get a higher amount of production to buy this because of its affordability,” he said. “It’s a big game changer for many providers to get into the hypersonic business area, either as prime or supplier.”
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