In May 2013, the U.S. Air Force raised a few eyebrows when it tested the X-51 WaveRider. The hypersonic vehicle was launched from a rocket on a B-52 bomber, climbed to 60,000 feet, accelerated to Mach 5.1 (about 3,400 mph), and after three-and-a-half minutes of flight, it ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
The Pentagon now wants to do it again. And its reasons for developing the incredibly-fast vehicle aren’t just about taking a joyride.
The Chinese Communist Party confirmed in December 2014 that it conducted a third test flight of a hypersonic strike vehicle. Its objective, U.S. officials believe, is to create nuclear weapons that can blast past U.S. missile defenses.
There is now a race between the United States and the Chinese regime to develop the next-generation strike vehicles, which can reach speeds that were previously unheard of.
“X-51 was really a proof of concept test,” Air Force chief scientist Mica Endsley told Defense Tech. “It showed that you could get a scram jet engine, launch it off an aircraft and it could go hypersonic.”
During the 2013 test, the X-51 was able to send back data before it crashed into the ocean, and according to Defense Tech this information is now being used to create a newer and better hypersonic vehicle.
“What they are trying to do now is build the whole system so that it is not just about the engine,” Endsley said, noting that doing so isn’t as easy as it sounds. It requires materials that can withstand high heat, guidance systems that can function at ultrasonic speeds, and other systems.
The new vehicle will be developed alongside a separate Air Force program to develop hypersonic weapons.
Hypersonic weapons are not to be confused with supersonic weapons—which the Chinese regime is also putting a lot of muscle behind developing. While hypersonic vehicles are mainly for nuclear arms and reconnaissance, supersonic vehicles are mainly being used for anti-ship missiles.
“Certainly, the U.S. is not the only country involved in developing hypersonic weapons,” Endsley said.