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Russia’s Nightmare: Why the US Air Force Must Embrace a Hypersonic Future

Hermeus’ Quarterhorse, a future hypersonic and reusable aircraft tested its engine during a ground test event that unveiled the first prototype.
Image: Creative Commons.

The US military faces big threats from both Russia and China as they build better and more advanced hypersonic weapons and possible aircraft. How can Washington respond to these growing threats? Atlanta-based aviation firm Hermeus has been working toward the development of the worlds’ first crewed reusable hypersonic passenger aircraft, and as you might imagine, a cost-effective Mach 5 jet could have far-reaching implications in the defense sector.

While today’s news may be dominated by discussions about hypersonic weapons, faster aircraft could allow the US military to cover greater distances in less time, which could be incredibly valuable for overcoming the dreaded tyranny of distance.

When stealth doesn’t cut it anymore, speed matters

In an interview for our AirPower series on YouTube, Hermeus co-founder and Chief Operations officer Skyer Shuford explained why crewed hypersonic flight may help to make tactical aircraft more survivable in contested airspace, even as advanced anti-stealth radar systems continue to mature.

“As technology gets better, you can pump more and more ground-based power into radar and then stealth isn’t doing as much in terms of survivability as it used to. So really, what that comes down to then is how to avoid being trapped or hit, and that’s where speed starts to come in,” Shuford said.

There’s historical precedent for the argument that speed can provide increased survivability. The legendary SR-71 Blackbird famously outran some 4,000 missiles fired at it throughout its tenure with the U.S. Air Force. Modern anti-air systems are more advanced than ever, but targeting a maneuverable aircraft moving at Mach 5 at high altitude would represent a massive challenge for even the most advanced systems in service today.

Lower development costs and shorter service lives could increase capability

Shuford also explained why Hermeus sees it as essential to pursue a lower-cost approach to rapid development of combat aircraft. According to Shuford, huge developmental efforts with costs measured in the billions create greater challenges for themselves because of how long they need to stay in service just to justify their expense. By driving down development costs, it becomes possible to design and field platforms specifically for the environment they’re operating in, without having to devote time and money to managing threats that may materialize years or even decades down the road.

“The Air Force is already moving toward a different model of how to acquire these types of complex systems. The F-35 is pretty awesome in terms of the tech that’s in there, but it’s really driving down the logistics tail, or basically how long it has to stay in service to make sense,” he said.

But the most valuable capability hypersonic aircraft could offer the U.S. military, Shuford contends, is covering a great deal of ground very quickly. The United States operates the largest air force anywhere on the planet, but even Uncle Sam can’t have F-16s and AC-130s flying orbits around every military operation the world over. Long-endurance drones like the MQ-9 Reaper have made it easier to keep eyes and even ordnance above combat zones for extended periods of time, but these low-speed systems can take many hours to reach their targets from even relatively nearby airstrips.

Distance kills, but speed can save lives

On October 4, 2017, a group of U.S. Army Green Berets and Nigerian soldiers was ambushed by fighters from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) in Niger. The tragic firefight ended with four dead U.S. troops, five dead Nigerian soldiers, and some difficult questions about how the most highly trained warfighters in the world with support from the most powerful military in the world found themselves fighting through a tactical disadvantage without any air support close enough to make a difference.

In 2012, a coordinated attack against two separate U.S. installations in Benghazi, Libya came with similarly painful lessons. When the dust settled, four Americans were dead, including two CIA contractors and the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens. Like the ambush in Niger, air support for Americans in Libya was too far away to provide any meaningful assistance throughout the majority of the fight.

These two instances were outliers stretched across two decades of counter-terror operations, but they both perfectly demonstrate the very real limitations of American airpower when it comes to the tyranny of distance. American special operations forces tasked with fighting or training proxy fighters for conflicts in Africa and the Middle East will be spread further and operating with less support than ever before in the modern era in the coming years. Without a new approach to air support, it could be a recipe for Niger or Benghazi-style disasters.

Speed has already proven handy in combat in the uncontested airspaces of the Middle East. Two years ago, I interviewed Major “Coyote” Laney, a B-1B pilot instructor from the 28th Bomb Squadron, for Popular Mechanics. He told me a story about one air support mission he flew in which the supersonic bomber’s speed made all the difference. In the interview, he emphasized the value of being able to travel at Mach 1.2 in the Lancer across a fairly short distance, so you can imagine the potential value of a Mach 5 capable aircraft over greater ones.

“I remember in Afghanistan where troops needed help across the entire country and I could go 1.2 Mach all the way there and still have enough gas to hang out when I got there,” Laney explained.

“So you can take a platform that’s on the East side of Afghanistan and 15 or 20 minutes later, I’m showing up when there’s no one else for several hundred miles that could help.”

Of course, the B-1B Lancer is now slated for retirement, with the sub-sonic and stealthy B-21 Raider slated to replace it.

Keeping costs low and speeds high

By leveraging low-cost hypersonic aircraft, the United States could rely on fewer, faster platforms to provide support, deliver supplies, or provide real-time reconnaissance. While not technically attritable (a term the Air Force uses to describe platforms that are cheap enough to be somewhat disposable), Hermeus’ uncrewed hypersonic aircraft could be less expensive than high-dollar fighters like the F-35 while traveling faster and offering no risk to human operators. Eventually, crewed hypersonic platforms could offer even more mission flexibility.

“But really where we started to find interest in the kind of intermediate products that we’re looking to build is really in covering long distances quickly,” Shuford explained.

“When we’re getting into strategic competition, near peer adversaries where we really need to cover long distances quickly, where we need to get eyes on target quickly or reconstitute networks when something like a comm node went down. To be able to get there quickly, drop off a new comm node—those are starting to be the more interesting conversations that we’re starting to have.”

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University. This first appeared in Sandboxx News. 

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Sandboxx News is a digital and print military media outlet focused on the lives, experiences, and challenges facing today’s service members and America’s defense apparatus. Built on the simple premise that service members and their supporters need a reliable news outlet free of partisan politics and sensationalism, Sandboxx News delivers stories from around the world and insights into the U.S. Military’s past, present, and future– delivered through the lens of real veterans, service members, military spouses, and professional journalists.