Putting the Hype in Hypersonic Weapons

As a teenager, I loved this magazine and read it at my local library

W.J. Astore

Supersonic just isn’t fast enough anymore. Now we need hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic generally refers to something that travels at Mach 5 or above, or five times the speed of sound. (Most supersonic jets max out at Mach 2 or thereabouts.) Missiles that are hypersonic would be very difficult to intercept and could be deadly against large, slow-moving targets, e.g. aircraft carriers. So occasionally you hear about China or Russia or both developing hypersonic weapons, followed by a Chicken Little, sky-is-falling, warning about how the U.S. is failing to keep up.

This is all on my mind because I got an email invitation to a hypersonic weapons conference. As a retired Air Force officer and former engineer, this could have been my life: working for a defense contractor, hyping hypersonic weaponry. Where did I go wrong?

“In light of the Department of Defense’s recent & successful hypersonic glide body test marking a major milestone for the DOD’s fielding of hypersonic capabilities, IDGA is bringing back the Hypersonic Weapons Summit this October 28-30, in order to comprehensively analyze and enable the fielding of hypersonic warfighting capabilities.”

“This summit will highlight critical areas to include:

• Enabling Hypersonic Capabilities Utilization for Warfighters across Multiple Domains
• S&T Roadmaps & Investment Areas to Achieve Hypersonic Utilization
• Guiding Hypersonic Testing to Understand Technological Needs
• Workforce Initiatives
• US Academia/University Collaboration”

This invitation makes me nostalgic for my military days: all those acronyms, all that jargon, all those references to “warfighting” and “warfighters,” all those vague references, e.g. multiple domains, workforce, investment, and so on.

Again, this is just a random invite, the kind that industry people see daily, but it does reveal the military-industrial-university complex in all its hyperventilating glory.

Advertised speakers at this conference include civilians from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the commanding general of Air Force Global Strike Command, the Army Hypersonic Project Office, a senior representative from U.S. Strategic Command, and a professor of the Hypersonic Systems Initiative, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, University of Notre Dame.

What a lineup! These people make very good money developing faster and faster missiles to blow things up or to intercept other missiles that blow things up. And I do appreciate the rare honesty of the name “Air Force Global Strike Command.” Global strike is far more accurate than national defense.

As a teenager, I used to read “Aviation Week & Space Technology” at my local library. I loved keeping track of the latest cool weapons, which back then meant fighter jets like the F-14 and F-15 or bombers like the B-1. I hate to admit it, but I didn’t give much thought to what these and similar weapons were all about: blowing things up and killing people. They just seemed exciting and a little bit sexy, and I bought the hype.

Sad to say to my teenage self but this will be a conference I’ll have to miss.