Hypersonic weapons and aircraft epitomise a 21st-century breakthrough that will transform science fiction to science fact. In fact, hypersonic technology has a long history, stretching back more than half a century. Similar to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), interest and perceived viability has waxed and waned over the years, but the resurgence of great power competition between China, Russia, and the US has resulted in increased investment and interest by all parties.
Listed below are the key technology trends impacting the hypersonic weapons industry, as identified by GlobalData.
The key advantage of hypersonic technology is its speed. The advanced speed of new hypersonic weapons will provide states with the ability to strike moving targets and act rapidly in developing situations. The ability of new weapons to travel at hypersonic speeds will significantly reduce warning times, and reduce the effectiveness of missile countermeasures. Hypersonic devices are likely to be deployed in a number of areas, including naval and aerospace.
3D-printing is a computer-controlled additive manufacturing technique in which a digital model is turned into a 3D object by adding layers and layers of thin slices of horizontal materials. 3D printing has already been used by Northrop to 3D print a scramjet engine for Raytheon, and will be critical in the production stage as well as development. The use of 3D printing is increasing rapidly because of its ability to create complex shapes and sizes of objects in minimal time and at a nominal cost. SpaceX, for example, has a large 3D printer that is being used to make parts that are used in the production of rocket engines.
Propulsion systems play a critical role in determining the range, payload, and speed of a missile. The major propulsion systems currently used in rockets and missiles are turbofans, turbojets, and ramjets. Supersonic systems, which travel at a speed of Mach 2-4, run on ramjet technology. However, in recent years, there has been an increasing demand for rockets with higher speeds. This has led to the development of a new propulsion system called Supersonic Combustion Ramjet, or scramjet.
Most high-profile hypersonic weapons either utilise scramjet propulsion, as is the case with hypersonic cruise missiles, or are unpowered glide vehicles which are propelled to extreme altitudes by ballistic missile systems, before gliding at high speeds towards their targets on a non-ballistic trajectory. The US is utilising scramjet technology for projects such as the ARRW missile and Russia is using the scramjet for its Zircon missile.
Artificial intelligence (AI)
AI is likely to make an impact on missile defence. Hypersonic missiles deployed in the field will reduce the reaction time available for missile defence systems to mitigate the threat. The human element in the chain will have to be removed or reduced. Potential systems like the space sensor array will produce large amounts of data, meaning that AI will be needed to sort through the data and look for potential threats.
The development of hypersonic technology will lead to the development of other associated technologies. In missile defence, this will lead to the development of direct energy weapons which are likely to be a more effective form of defence. Advanced satellite arrays are likely to be put in place for more effective missile tracking. The US is developing a space sensor array which has the potential to be used for birth-to-death tracking of hypersonic weapons.
This is an edited extract from the Hypersonic Technologies – Thematic Research report produced by GlobalData Thematic Research.