The ADF has signed an agreement with the US to develop a prototype air-launched hypersonic missile able to hit a target such as an aircraft carrier at a speed in excess of Mach 5.
The Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment (SCiFiRE) draws on 15 years of research on hypersonics by Australian defence scientists, universities, and industry. That includes actual launches and flight trials conducted under the HIFiRE program.
Through this work – some of which has been performed in conjunction with the US – Australia is regarded as a world leader in aspects of hypersonics technology such as scramjets and the field of hypersonic aero-thermodynamics for speeds greater than Mach 8.
Defence Minister Senator Linda Reynolds said the program aimed to reach the stage of flight testing of full-sized prototype missile to inform future acquisitions. “This demonstrates the Morrison government’s commitment to strengthening Australia’s sovereign defence industry while creating more high-tech Australian jobs and enhancing the Australian Defence Force’s self-reliance,” she said in a December 1 statement.
Hypersonic missiles are an emerging threat with both Russia and China claiming to have developed missiles able to travel at hypersonic speeds. Such missiles could carry nuclear warheads, and the challenge for a defender is to detect and respond in the very short time available.
The 2020 Defence Strategic Update warns that emerging and disruptive technologies will be rapidly translated into weapon systems such as sophisticated sensors, autonomous systems, and high-speed weapons, reducing decision times, and improving weapon precision and lethality.
The accompanying 2020 Force Structure Plan (FSP) says Defence will invest $6.2 to $9.3 billion into this research, starting next year and extending beyond 2020.
What has been proposed is an air-breathing missile able to be launched from an F/A-18F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler, P-8A Poseidon, or F-35A Lightning II, be able to fly faster than Mach 5, and be capable of sinking an aircraft carrier.
“SCIFiRE is a true testament to the enduring friendship and strong partnership between the United States and Australia,” US Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Michael Kratsios said in a Pentagon release. “This initiative will be essential to the future of hypersonic research and development, ensuring the U.S. and our allies lead the world in the advancement of this transformational warfighting capability.”
RAAF Chief AIRMSHL Mel Hupfeld said, “The SCIFiRE initiative is another opportunity to advance the capabilities in our Air Combat Capability Program to support joint force effects to advance Australia’s security and prosperity. Working with our Defence scientists here in Australia and our partners in the US Air Force and across the US Department of Defense on leading edge capabilities brings out the best in our Air Force team.”
A senior Australian Defence official told media on November 30, “The strategic environment has really changed. The warning time is significantly less. There is a build-up of military forces in our region and we need to be able to keep them at bay as far away from Australia as we possibly can. This is all speed.
“This is really about turning this from a research project into a real capability,” the spokesperson added. “This is a very significant part of the sorts of things that we need to get into if we going to be a credible military force in the region.”
Defence will conduct an industry briefing on December 4 to assess what Australian firms can contribute to the research, development, and eventually manufacture of such missiles.