Hyper Threat

Hypersonics research launches Huntsville into the center of 21st century arms race.

Air Force personnel secure an AGM-183A beneath the wing of a B-52H. Air Force photo by Giancarlo Casem

Six or seven years ago, Jason Cassibry noticed a change at propulsion and hypersonic conferences. “The number of authors from China suddenly started to go up.”

“You could see there was a lot more hypersonic research at the academic level going on all of a sudden. It takes a while for messages like that to catch up in Congress, that some of these countries that we are concerned about have invested a lot in hypersonics, and now they are doing flight tests and we are behind.”

That national mindset has changed, and Huntsville is smack in the middle of a new arms race. And the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where Cassibry teaches mechanical and aerospace engineering, is a big player.

The world’s superpowers are developing an array of hypersonic missiles that can travel across the world faster than Mach 5 — 3,800 miles per hour — pairing the speed of ballistic missiles and the maneuvering capabilities of cruise missiles. And their speed makes them hard to track compared to traditional missiles.

Hypersonic has been described by Pentagon officials as a range of capabilities — intermediate- and long-range missiles that can be launched from ships, off trucks, from the wings of airplanes and even out of bomb bays, according to Military.com.

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Various reports say that while the U.S., Russia and China are all investing heavily in hypersonic technologies, the U.S. was the last of the three to jump on the bandwagon, and now other countries like India also are said to be working in the hypersonic arena.

“The administration and Department of Defense kind of said, ‘Hey, look, we want to get some prototypes tested and we need to get something in the field,’” says Steve Messervy, director of the University of Alabama in Huntsville Research Institute, a major contributor to research in the hypersonic area.

Steve Messervy

UAH is supporting both the main contractors, Lockheed Martin with its $347 million contract and Dynetics with its $351.6 million contract, while also supporting the Space Defense Agency and the Space and Missile Defense Command, Messervy says.

As evidence of the increased pressure on the DOD to regain its leadership in hypersonic research and development, last March it successfully tested a common hypersonic glide body in a flight experiment conducted from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii.

The glide body was made by Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but the common hypersonic glide bodies for later tests and prototypes will be built by Dynetics at one of its Huntsville facilities.

The common hypersonic glide body (C-HGB) will go onto the long-range hypersonic weapons system that is being managed by Lockheed Martin, says Paul Turner, hypersonic program director at Dynetics. “The glide body is the end point of the spear of that particular system, the delivery mechanism.”

“Common” means the hypersonic glide body can be used in a number of applications.

The March launch was jointly executed by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army and is considered a major step toward the goal of fielding hypersonic warfighting capabilities in the next few years.

“We were very pleased with the results,” Turner says.

Moreover, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Neil Thurgood, who is leading the Army’s hypersonic efforts, says, “We successfully executed a mission consistent with how we can apply this capability in the future,” adding that it’s time to “move aggressively to get prototypes to the field.”

That means, says Turner, transitioning design to industry and starting the manufacturing process. “So from a glide body perspective, all of the manufacturing, assembly operation and testing of the glide body will happen in Huntsville. Once that is completed, it will then get delivered to Lockheed Martin in Courtland, where the energetics would be installed, and then it will be buttoned up into the final configuration for a long-range hypersonic weapon.”

Energetics are the propulsion system and other systems, including hypersonic weapons, which will be added at Lockheed Martin’s Courtland facility. Lockheed announced about a year ago it planned to make North Alabama its flagship location for hypersonic programs and would add two new buildings to the facility.

Messervy says in addition to the offensive side of hypersonic programs, there is the defensive side led by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which also has a facility in Huntsville and five other locations.

“So how do you defend yourself against a Russian hypersonic missile coming at you?” asks Messervy. “So they said, MDA you figure that out, so you have got to have some kind of hypersonic missile that goes after their missiles. That’s your bailiwick. Air Force, we want you to work on hypersonic missiles and vehicles that are air launched, that you can launch from jets or bombers or whatever.

“And then Navy and Army. Navy, you need a hypersonic weapon that we can put on ships and maybe submarines because we want to be able to launch anywhere. And Army,
we want a ground launch system for hypersonic strike capability. So the Department of Defense had what they called a prompt global strike program and the objective of that program is, we want to be able to shoot a missile at somebody and have it go anywhere in the world and strike, say, within 30 minutes.”

Lockheed Martin’s guidance, boosters, weapons and other energetics and Dynetics’ glide body work are Huntsville’s two major current initiatives, Messervy says.

“So right now they have some tests that they will do this year and next year and in 2022, then the plan is to have what they call a residual hypersonic capability. It comes out of test and is operational in 2023,” he says.

UAH, says Messervy, is involved in several ways, including “basic supporting research. One of the things I’m involved in is what we call an air missile integration systems lab. We will do actual testing and simulations of hypersonic missile flights.”

While Lockheed Martin and Dynetics are developing systems, “the government needs an independent facility to validate and then verify,” he added.

“What you want to do, and before you go out and do that $60 million or $100 million test or whatever it is, you can roll that missile into a lab, and hook it up to your simulation … and you’re really testing the actual hardware in the simulation to see how the hardware would do if it was actually flying.”

Messervy says the speed of hypersonic weapons, while deadly, causes a number of problems.

“You ever try to control a car going a 100 miles an hour? It doesn’t exactly control like it is going 50 miles an hour, right? So you turn it one inch, you may roll the vehicle over. So if you’re going Mach 5, let’s say you hit a little bit denser air than what you’re flying through, what does that do to your vehicle?”

Then there is the heat issue. Moving at Mach 5, Messervy says, produces temperatures of 2300 degrees.

“That’s why most hypersonic vehicles are made to go up into the edge of space, do most of their flying there, then come back into the atmosphere,” he says.

“But if you are trying to target any threat missile batteries on the ground somewhere in some other country halfway around the world, you can’t miss by too much,” so it’s critical to solve problems caused by speed and heat.

“Now if you are in a jetliner at 30,000 feet, you are at about minus 53 degrees,” he says, “you don’t have to deal with that heat as much as you do in space. When we come into the atmosphere is where we got big problems.”

Hypersonics are so fast, Messervy says, “that if it takes you three seconds to give your missile a command, in three or four seconds it may be too late to change what’s going on. So how do you control that? Do you send a message to your hypersonic glide vehicle that you want to move three degrees to the left? Three degrees may be a huge change to still be able to control that vehicle.”

Another important building on the UAH campus is the Aerophysics Research Center, which operates three two-stage light gas gun systems that provide a wide variety of ways to investigate how high-speed vehicles react to the environment.

“We can make a model of that hypersonic glide vehicle and can shoot it in one of those light gas guns, which is like a big rifle, basically,” Messervy says.  “And we can shoot it down there, say above Mach 5 and hit a target and see how that does. What kind of problems do we run into on a scaled version of that? We hope to be able to help the Army Missile Defense Agency do the testing. There are only a few places around the country that can do that type of testing and that saves a lot of money before you go out and spend a bunch of money on the pad.”

Jason Cassibry

And while a lot of what is going on in Huntsville is centered on offensive warfare, Cassibry says he thinks “the defensive part is going to come soon.”

“I think there is a lot more we (UAH) can do, because the nation is going to invest heavily in universities to do a lot of hypersonic research,” he says, pointing to the Propulsion Research Center’s supersonic wind tunnel.

And if the U.S. war fighters have to launch a high-speed missile in bad weather, UAH has that covered, too, noting that the Propulsion Research Center has even studied “the impact of rain drops going through shockwaves at Mach 5 flow.”

Bill Gerdes is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Hoover.

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