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Frightline Friday: Lockheed to Develop Mach 20 Strike System September 23, 2016

Posted by Tantumblogo in Admin, Flightline Friday, fun, history, non squitur, silliness, technology.

DARPA has been working on this for over a decade, with not exactly stellar success.  Called originally Prompt Global Strike, as people began to wrap their heads around the “Global War on Terror” in the early 00s, they began to comprehend how useful a weapon system that could be launched from CONUS and hit a target anywhere in the world within 30-40 minutes.

Some bright folks at the Air Staff exclaimed: “Why, we have ICBMs that can do that!  We just need to put a conventional warhead (or not) on an ICBM and, voila!, capability created!”  Someone then said……how would the Russians or Chinese feel about an ICBM launch from the US, even if told about it in advance?  How would they feel about ICBM warheads sailing overhead in route to a target in Afghanistan or Yemen?  Back to the drawing board……..

So began what has turned into a long-term effort to develop what amounts to a sort of hypersonic cruise missile, launched from a bomber or perhaps a sub and carried aloft to a high, but nowhere near orbital, altitude, and flying to the target at speeds between Mach 5 (3500 mph) and Mach 20 (14,000 mph).

There have been a number of programs – Hypersonic Test Vehicles HTV-1, HTV-2, X-43, X-51, and the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon.  Their success rate has been around 50% so far.  HTV really never quite worked and seems to have been cancelled.  AHW seem to be ongoing.  All of these follow a “depressed,” atmospheric trajectory deliberately, to prevent other nuclear armed powers from believing they are being attacked with ballistic missiles.  How excited they will become at a Mach 20 scramjet coming in their general direction remains to be seen.

The US is hardly the only country pursuing this technology.  China and Russia both are, and the Chinese program may be more advanced than the US at this time.

Perhaps to redress that, DARPA awarded a $150 million contract to Lockheed to develop a new Tactical Boost Glide weapon.  $150 is probably chicken feed to develop something so radically advanced, but perhaps that’s just for starters:

Lockheed Martin just won a $147 million contract to build a vehicle capable of flying at speeds of Mach 20. The goal is to create a high-speed delivery system that could bomb targets thousands of miles away in an hour or less. It’s similar to what other countries, including Russia and China, are working on.

Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) will be an air-launched boost glide weapon system. The TBG itself is a aerodynamic, arrowhead-shaped vehicle fitted on the nose of a rocket. The rocket in turn is carried by a large aircraft such as a B-52 bomber, which would carry the rocket to high altitude and then launch it. The rocket boosts TBG to an evenhigher altitude, whereupon a scramjet or ramjet kicks in and quickly accelerates it up to hypersonic speeds. TBG then glides unpowered the rest of the way to the target.

How fast will TBG go? A nearly identical program concluded in 2011 reached speeds of Mach 20. At that speed, a hypersonic vehicle could travel from New York City to Los Angeles in 12 minutes, or London to Sydney in 49 minutes.

Hypersonic is the next frontier in weaponry. The super-fast speeds could make it possible to destroy a faraway but time-critical target—say, a North Korean missile fueling on the launch pad or a terrorist meeting in a remote location. Hypersonic speed also makes interception very difficult—and makes the actual vehicle a weapon when the kinetic energy of an object traveling at Mach 20 is transferred to a target.

Meh.  Prompt Global Strike, like unmanned systems, is more of a politician’s dream than what I suspect will become a real military capability.  Politicians love unmanned systems for the promise of being able to fight wars without much risk of loss of US life.  I pray to God they never become really capable, or we’ll be killing people around the world without end at a far higher rate than we do now.  There’d be no end to it.

Don’t get me wrong, hypersonics have great utility and I think they will eventually come along, but I think Mach 20 is quite a reach.  The temperatures and pressures at that altitude (~200,000 ft) are fantastic – hundreds if not thousands of PSI, 3500 degrees F.  Mach 5-8 seems much more reasonable, and the technology to handle those temps and pressures has been around a long time.


The earlier X-43:

A successful hypersonic weapon, whether an air-breathing scramjet powered vehicle, or one that glides after initial boost to terrific speed, can be much more difficult to intercept than an ICBM RV because they are not on a fixed ballistic profile, and will likely be capable of something like aircraft like maneuvers, albeit, at enormous speeds.

Long ago, the Air Force had a project for a replacement to the venerable B-52.  The replacement was called the XB-70.  It was killed largely due to McNamara’s inveterate dislike for bombers, which stemmed from several reasons, most of them faulty.  The XB-70 was killed because it was designed to fly at Mach 3.2 at 70-80,000 ft.  With the shootdown of Francis Gary Powers U-2 in 1960, some felt that high altitude was too dangerous, due to the proliferation of surface-to-air missiles that could reach the same or higher altitudes.

However, one massive bit of the equation McNamara missed was the difference in performance.  At 70,000 ft, the U-2 cruised at about 400 mph.  That’s all it could do.  The B-70 would have been 5 times as fast.  While the B-70 had a much larger radar cross section and could thus be detected sooner, 30 years of operation with the SR-71 proved that the high-altitude domain had not been rendered implausible due to surface to air missiles.  Flying at the same speeds and altitudes, the SR-71 was targeted and fired upon by SAMs literally hundreds of times, but not one was ever shot down or even damaged.

The reason is that even very large SAMs have very little energy left when they get to that kind of extreme altitude, and the aircraft are often about as maneuverable (if not more) than the SAM way up there in the up there.  Also, the enormous speed of the SR-71 (or B-70) means that even a slight change in course results in a displacement of the flight path on the order of miles within a minute or less.  So, the SAM, targeted to a particular spot in the sky where the fast, high-altitude aircraft is expected to be, winds up missing by a huge distance when the aircraft turns to avoid.  Really no air defense systems of the 60s-90s timeframe could react quickly enough, or had missiles with high enough flight performance, to hit a maneuvering target at those speeds and altitudes.

And that doesn’t even begin to factor in the very advanced electronic countermeasures an aircraft like the B-70 or SR-71 would have or did carry.  An ICBM RV is simple to shoot down by comparison, being on a fixed ballistic trajectory – albeit very, very fast – it WILL be at a certain point in the sky at a certain point in time and there is nothing that can be done to change that.  Get an interceptor to that same point at the right time, and you have a kill.

The Russians now purport to have “maneuverable” RVs (with attached rockets or lift devices to deviate from the fixed ballistic trajectory) able to defeat missile defense systems, but they a) drastically exaggerate their capabilities, and b) fail to note that they are so heavy and cumbersome that they have a huge negative impact on the ICBM’s limited payload/range capabilities.

The prototype XB-70 #2 reached a peak speed of Mach 3.07 and an altitude of 72,800 ft during it’s test program.  The production B-70s would have been equipped with more powerful engines and able to fly faster and quite a bit higher.

But I guess that’s a story for another day.

North American XB-70A Valkyrie




1. Blaine - September 24, 2016

There is (was?) an XB-70 in the Air Force Museum at Wright- Patterson AFB in Dayton. Most awe-inspiring aircraft I’ve ever seen in person (SR-71 is close 2, but the size, the white… wow).

A Grumman X-29 sat under it on one side, and an F-117A on the other. Fantastic museum if you ever get the chance.

Tantumblogo - September 27, 2016

Never been there, but I hope to go both the Pensacola and to Dayton to see both museums someday. Not a real enticing vacation destination for my wife, though. I think I could sell her on Pensacola, but Dayton……

Yah, the B-70 had a MTOW of 600,000 lbs, same as a DC-10, but could fly slightly faster……..

2. c matt - September 27, 2016

“Frightline” …. just got it. Unless that’s a typo?

Tantumblogo - September 27, 2016

Naw it was intentional but dumb

3. Camper - September 27, 2016

Hey Tantum, would love it if you would do an article on who won the debate between trump and clinton.

Tantumblogo - September 27, 2016

Didn’t watch it. I cannot stand to watch that woman. At all. She freaks me out.

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