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U.S. aims to have hypersonic weapons systems by 2023

By Brian Booker     Jun 6, 2015 in Technology
The United States Air Force is looking to have unmanned aircraft that can go five times the speed of sound in the skies by 2023. These so-called hypersonic aircraft could potentially transform the nature of modern warfare.
An aircraft is considered hypersonic if it can travel at least 3,791 miles per hour. This is five times the speed of sound and is also referred to as mach 5.
Hypersonic weapons will allow the military to strike targets far more quickly. Currently, the time lag between ordering a missile strike and the actual impact allows targets to get away, and conditions on the ground to change.
In 1998, for example, Bill Clinton ordered a missile strike against terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. Tomohawk cruise missiles were launched by U.S. military assets in the Arabian Sea, but took approximately two hours to reach their targets.
By the time the missiles struck, several high level targets had already left the training camps.
Further, on at least two other occasions prior to the September 11th terrorist attacks, the United States had located Osama Bin Laden as he traveled through Afghanistan. The military lacked the necessary weapons to target the terrorist leader, however.
Hypersonic aircraft would be able to deliver missiles much more rapidly, thus increasing the likelihood of hitting high value targets.
Global hypersonic arms race heating up
The weapons being developed by the United States government are part of a $300 million dollar program that was unvieled in 2004. The first tests of Mach 5 vehicles were launched in 2009, however initial tests failed.
In 2013, a vehicle system called Waverider reached Mach 5 before intentionally crashing into the Pacific Ocean.
The American government isn't the only government looking to develop hypersonic weapons systems. The Chinese and Russian governments are both actively working to develop such weapons systems.
The weapons would be virtually impossible to detect, at least with currently available technologies, and developing defensive measures would be very difficult.
Long history of experimentation with hypersonic weapon systems
The American military has been experimenting with unmanned hypersonic aircraft for the last several years, and has had some limited success with them during test launches from aircraft over the pacific.
Currently, the American military does possess intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs for short. ICBMs are traditionally armed with nuclear warheads. These space faring rockets are able to travel at over 15,000 miles per hour, but are extremely expensive and not practical for conventional bombing strikes.
The fastest manned aircraft ever used was the U.S. Air Force SR-71, which was able to travel at about 3.5 times the speed of sound. The aircraft was used to gather intelligence on the Soviet Union, and was able to outrun any missiles or enemy aircraft scrambled to intercept it.
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