Australia looking to be a world-leader in hypersonics
“My God, it’s a missile,” exclaimed a pair of bridge watch officers almost in unison as a puff of smoke on the South Atlantic horizon resolved into a missile fast approaching their ship, HMS Sheffield.
Four seconds later on that grey day in May 1982, an Aerospatiale AM39 Exocet fired by an Argentine Dassault Super Etendard struck Sheffield amidships, killing 20 sailors and starting uncontrollable fires, forcing the ship to be abandoned.
This was a turning point in modern naval warfare – a modern warship had been sunk by a new weapon, an air-launched sea-skimming missile.
Such missiles are now commonplace, as are the countermeasures, advanced radars, decoys such as Nulka, missiles and, if all else fails, a close-in weapon system (CWIS). But such countermeasures, far better than anything aboard Sheffield, face a new challenge.
Where the Exocet and Harpoon and their kin travel comparatively sedately below the speed of sound, and some of their successors or adversary systems at supersonic speeds, the next generation of missiles will arrive at hypersonic speeds of Mach 5 or above. This is an emerging capability which could change the nature of 21st century warfare.
Many countries, including the US, Russia, China, and India have worked on developing hypersonic missile systems. China claims to have fielded a practical system – its ballistic missile-launched DF-ZF. This is billed as a carrier-killer, able to penetrate the layered defence of a US carrier battle group and obliterate a carrier, maybe with a nuclear warhead – although a nuke or even a large conventional warhead isn’t essential – kinetic energy from hypersonic speed has a destructive power all its own.
The ADF plans to acquire a hypersonic missile, initially for air launch from the RAAF’s Super Hornets and Growlers, P-8A, or F-35A aircraft. Missile size would likely preclude it from carriage in the F-35 weapon bay. Eventually the ADF plans to acquire ground and ship-launched hypersonic missiles.
This won’t be a typical FMS deal where Australia buys a mature in-service capability from the US. Under an agreement announced on December 1, 2020, Australia and the US will jointly develop a prototype air-launched hypersonic cruise missile with a range of some 400nm, and the ability to precisely strike a target such as a warship at a speed in excess of Mach 5.
This project is called the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment (SCIFiRE), and the US describes it as an Allied Prototyping Initiative (API) under the Directorate for Advanced Capabilities within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. The US Department of the Air Force, under the direction of the Weapons Program Executive Officer, is responsible for its side of the program.
The US already has substantial expertise in hypersonics with the ultimate vision of a capability to strike almost anywhere on Earth within minutes, or a few hours rather than days.
In the latest move, Lockheed Martin announcing in late November it had finalised acquisition of the hypersonics portfolio of Integration Innovation, an Alabama software and systems engineering company, saying the acquisition will expand its capabilities to design, develop, and produce integrated hypersonic weapon systems for its customers.
In February 2020, the USAF cancelled its US$1 billion Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon program for which Lockheed was chosen as prime contractor in 2018.
Australia does not come to this new joint-venture as a minor player, possessing substantial and, in some areas, world-class expertise in hypersonics through decades of research by the University of Queensland, Australian National University, and University of NSW ADFA, plus Australian defence scientists and companies.
Much pioneering research on scramjets was conducted by Australia’s first professor of space engineering, Ray Stalker, at the University of Queensland in the 1980s and 1990s. Under the HiFiRE program, the Australian Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group and USAF Research Laboratory conducted hypersonic flight trials, most recently in a launch from Woomera in 2017.
Through this work 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. A scramjet is a type of ramjet where combustion occurs in airflow travelling at supersonic speed – literally a supersonic combustion ramjet.
The 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU) 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 between $6.2bn and $9.3bn into this research, starting next year and extending beyond 2040.
A senior Australian defence official told media on 30 November that the strategic environment had really changed and warning times were now 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 about speed,” they said. “This is really about turning this from a research project into a real capability.”
What’s envisaged is an air-breathing missile, initially boosted by a conventional rocket motor to speeds where a scramjet can take over, driving it on to hypersonic speeds. “We are aiming for fives times the speed of sound. If we can make things faster than that, we will,” the official said.
Defence says these new missiles themselves don’t need inherently long range. Launched from an aircraft operating from the Australian mainland and supported by air-to-air refuelers, they deliver a significant ability to strike targets deep in our region.
The missiles wouldn’t necessarily just be anti-ship missiles, as the target set will likely also include key infrastructure. But it would appear to be well-suited to anti-shipping missions, and would be capable of striking and perhaps sinking an aircraft carrier.
Defence sees the current state of development of around Technology Readiness Level 5 (TRL-5) with this project aiming to take that to TRL-7. The TRL process was developed by NASA as a standardised means of estimating maturity of a technology during its development.
For SCiFiRE, this means advancing from where the technology is now – TRL-5 which is midway through maturation – up to initial transition to capability (TRL-7). At TRL-9, a capability is regarded as flight proven through successful operations.
Defence sees a significant role for Australian universities and industry, particularly small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs). To this end, it conducted an initial industry briefing on December 4 to assess which Australian firms can contribute to the research and eventually manufacture of missiles.
This isn’t intended to be a secret weapon, although its capabilities will no doubt be closely held. “We do want people to know, that’s all part of the shape and deter,” the official said. “We need a credible military force to deter. To be credible we have to have the sorts of weapons that allow to hold those forces at bay.”
This feature article was published in the Nov-Dec 2020 issue of ADBR.