As the Pentagon telegraphs a new sense of urgency to fielding hypersonic weapons, top Lockheed Martin officials are touting recent breakthroughs in leveraging extreme speed to counter emerging threats.
“Lockheed Martin has a legacy of making fast aircraft,” Lockheed CEO Marillyn Hewson said March 15 during the company’s annual media day. “We are now producing a controllable, low-drag, aerodynamic configuration capable of stable operations from takeoff to subsonic, transonic, supersonic and hypersonic, to Mach 6.”
Hypersonic flight is defined as anything about Mach 5, meaning five times the speed of sound or 3,600 miles per hour. To put it into perspective, a jet flying at hypersonic speeds could cross the continental United States in about half an hour.
Although it is extremely difficult to reach and maintain such speeds due to extreme temperatures and thermal loadings, the US has had the ability to build boost glide and boost cruise weapons for six decades. NASA’s X-15 effort in the 1960s was able to achieve speeds of Mach 5, and in 2013 the Air Force’s X-51 Waverider air vehicle, launched from a B-52 bomber, reached Mach 5.1 at 60,000 feet.
But developing a hypersonic weapon is expensive and technologically challenging, and in recent decades the Pentagon has chosen to invest in more traditional ways to take out the threat. However, as adversaries like Russia and China develop surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft weapons designed to foil US forces’ ability to penetrate, Pentagon leaders are pushing hypersonics as a means to counter this “anti-access area denial,” or A2/AD, environment.