The US is currently navigating a crucial decade that will define the landscape of global power dynamics. To maintain its edge and counter rivals targeting its advantages, the US government has acknowledged the need for significant changes. The National Defense Strategy outlines the need for comprehensive reform in how the US develops and manages military capabilities, with the aim of creating a lasting foundation for military superiority.
To fulfill the goals of the National Defense Strategy, the US government has recognized the need to capitalize on key several emerging technologies or “Critical Technology Areas” of which hypersonics is one.
Critical Technology Area: Hypersonics
The US military has an awe-inspiring diversity within its air arsenal. Featuring a mix of subsonic cruise missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and an ever-growing capacity of hypersonic weapons — which doesn’t even include drones and aircraft — our military has nearly every capability imaginable.
The Department of Defense is pouring significant resources into hypersonic aviation, and it’s easy to see why. This technology is shaping up to be the future of American air capabilities. Additionally, the hypersonics field is utilizing groundbreaking tech like metal additive manufacturing, setting the stage for further innovation.
Looking ahead, it’s becoming more evident that pouring money into single-use hypersonic weapons is harder to defend, especially as budgets lean more towards maintaining existing infrastructure. Instead of hypersonic missiles, hypersonic aviation provides similar advantages but with the added perk of reusability, enhancing the cost-effectiveness of such systems.
The Difference Between Hypersonic Missiles and Hypersonic Aircraft
The hypersonic weapons category contains several different types of missiles and aircraft, with the unifying fact that all of them travel at five times the speed of sound and faster.
ICBMs travel at hypersonic speeds but do it in a way completely different from other hypersonic weapons. These missiles travel on an arc that leads them outside of the earth’s atmosphere, and then brings them down on a target at hypersonic speeds faster than any other missiles. Because of their high arc, however, they’re more vulnerable to missile defense systems than other hypersonic missiles.
Hypersonic cruise missiles come in two forms: one that mounts the payload to a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) which maneuvers to the target and delivers said payload, and a traditional cruise missile that features a high-speed, air-breathing engine known as a scramjet which enables hypersonic flight. Neither of these missile types are built for reusability; once they hit their target, they’re used up.
Hypersonic aircraft travel in the same way as an HGV, yet they’re designed to deliver the payload and then return to their point of origin for additional munitions.
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Analyzing “Cost Per Effect”
The reason why hypersonic aircraft are a better long-term investment compared to hypersonic missiles boils down to cost per effect, or the amount of money it takes to complete their designated mission.
A hypersonic missile can cost as much as $100m each based on Department of Defense estimates, which is roughly the price of an F35A stealth aircraft. What’s more, because of the nature of missiles, the military must account for every eventuality — a missile gets intercepted, fails to go off, etc — so if a target is worth one hypersonic missile, it’s worth two or three. That places the cost per effect of one attack at nearly $200m using hypersonic missiles.
A Tomahawk missile costs roughly $2m. Even if a Tomahawk is easier to intercept than a hypersonic missile, the saturation point of 100 missiles — the same cost per effect as two hypersonic missiles — is enough to overwhelm even the most advanced missile defense systems. At this point, the justification for hypersonic missiles from a cost per effect standpoint just isn’t there.
Hypersonic aircraft, by contrast, can use munitions our military already has in storage and that require no research and development, deliver the payload, and then return for reloading. Even if the initial investment is much higher, hypersonic aircraft don’t throw away exotic propulsion systems during each attack.
Investing in the Future of Aviation
Hypersonic aviation is not only a compelling growth field for our military’s future, but it also represents an industry that leverages some of the most innovative technologies that can have a wider-ranging impact going forward. The number of physical barriers required to produce a hypersonic aircraft — challenges in engine construction, plane materials, lightweighting of parts and much more — take engineering breakthroughs to overcome.
Companies currently producing hypersonic aircraft are investing heavily in technologies such as metal additive manufacturing to make this vision a reality. The use of metal 3D printing has enabled companies like Hermeus out of Atlanta to vertically integrate their operations, bringing manufacturing within the same building as their engineers which has created conditions for rapid prototyping and iteration of complex parts to build this next generation jet engine.
The strides in hypersonic aviation enabled by metal additive manufacturing can have impacts on industries such as commercial aviation, aerospace, space, and beyond. While the defense department’s investment in hypersonic aircraft appears to be the right move for our military’s future, the ramifications of this investment could yield even more benefits going forward.
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