United States and Australian defense officials conducted a joint test of a new missile platform capable of reaching hypersonic speeds earlier this month.  The test featured the new HiFiRe Scramjet vehicle, which is said to be able to carry payloads at speeds in excess of six thousand miles per hour.  A missile platform capable of such incredible speeds could allow for strikes on enemy targets with better reaction time than ever before.

The launch took place at Australia’s Woomera Test Range.  Reports of a fireball in the night sky, high above the Australian outback poured in to local news outlets before Australian authorities announced the test.  The HiFiRE program has undergone various tests since its inception in 2009, including some that included launching it using an S-30 rocket as its first stage.

Scramjet technology, like that employed by the HiFiRE, burns a combination of fuel and oxygen from the atmosphere inside an internal combustion chamber, and like a ramjet, it sucks that oxygen in from the air it passes through.  However, unlike ramjets, the HiFiRE and similar applications reduce the speed of the incoming air to subsonic speeds, allowing for great engine efficiency, and in turn, the ability to reach hypersonic speeds.  The same scramjet technology is also being developed as a propulsion system for the SR-72, a military aircraft slated to serve as the successor to the legendary SR-71 Blackbird.  Defense officials have claimed that, using scramjet technology, the new plane could attain speeds as high as MACH 6.

In order to qualify as hypersonic, the missile must travel at speeds faster than MACH 5.5, or just below 4,220 miles per hour.

Australia’s defense minister, Marise Payne, issued a statement after the test announcement, indicating that the joint U.S./Australian effort had achieved “significant milestones, including design assembly, and pre-flight testing of the hypersonic vehicles and design of complex avionics and control systems.”

The test also saw participation from Boeing, BAE Systems, and the University of Queensland, according to her statement.

“We were pleased to support the DST (Defense Science and Technology Group) with the successful flight trial; the most complex of all HIFiRE flights conducted to date, to further the fundamental scientific understanding of hypersonic flight… This flight trial is a significant step forward in proving this technology and enhancing our collective understanding of how it could be employed across a range of applications.” Boeing said in a prepared statement.

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Although the speed achieved by this month’s test has not been announced, previous tests have exceeded MACH 7.5, or a jaw dropping 5,745 miles per hour, and one test conducted with assistance from NASA is said to have gone even faster.

Using this technology, a ballistic missile fired from Hawaii could strike targets in North Korea in as little as forty minutes.  That duration is even more impressive when compared to the timeframe required to scramble a B-2 Spirit Bomber to conduct an equivalent traditional strike, which would likely take about nine hours.  This would dramatically expand America’s ability to conduct strikes based on up to the minute intelligence gathering, increasing the effectiveness of time sensitive strikes on targets like terrorist meetings, or North Korean missiles being fueled on a launch pad.

Russia and China are both already hard at work developing their own hypersonic capable missile platforms, such as China’s DF-ZF, which piggybacks on another missile, allowing it to reach speeds as high as MACH 10.  China’s missile has been successfully tested seven times, thus far.

Russia’s Yu-71 hypersonic missile platform also hitches a ride on a more traditional missile, this time an RS-18 ICBM, before also attaining speeds rumored to be in the vicinity of MACH 10.  The Yu-71 was successfully tested in October of last year.

 

Image courtesy of the Australian Ministry of Defense