U.S. officials have reluctantly admitted that Russia and China made a giant leap ahead of U.S. defenses in recent years with development of hypersonic missiles and aircraft, and the University of Alabama in Huntsville is trumpeting its research facilities as one of the assets that could help the U.S. catch up.
Hypersonic technology is a giant leap because it equips vehicles to fly much faster than the speed of sound — an advance that puts them at least four years ahead of U.S. equipment, such as Navy fleet radar defense systems, making aircraft carriers sitting ducks.
“The Chinese and Russians are ahead of us in hypersonic R&D and testing,” says Steve Messervy, director of The University of Alabama in Huntsville Research Institute. “Just in the open literature, everybody knows they’re ahead of us.”
News of Russia’s hypersonic advances was first announced in March of 2018, in a speech by President Vladimir Putin. Since then the U.S. Department of Defense and defense contractors have pushed ambitious hypersonic development programs, implicitly acknowledging the hypersonic gap. Department of Defense Under Secretary of Defense Mike Griffin has acknowledged the gap and has been put in charge of closing it.
Griffin is former administrator of NASA and a former UAH eminent scholar and tenured professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.
Under Griffin’s leadership, funds are flowing for hypersonic research from the Air Force, Army, Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, says Messervy, and UAH testing facilities could be a significant part of that, he adds.
UAH facilities are especially equipped, says Messervy, for hypersonic projectile testing and data acquisition to research what affects projectiles and aircraft flying at hypersonic speeds.
The university’s Aerophysics Research Center, operating from the Aerophysics Research Facility located on Redstone Arsenal, says Messervy, is set up to provide hypersonic scaled testing with light gas gun systems that investigate the interactions of high-speed vehicles and their environments.
UAH is also involved in a federal initiative to construct a center to perform hardware in the loop (HIL) simulation testing on the Space and Missile Defense Command campus at Redstone. HIL testing is a dynamic systems technique that allows development and testing of real-time, complex systems in operation.
“UAH would like to help the government build this facility,” Messervy says. “What we are interested in, based on our testing, is that the hardware in the loop facility as it is built will be a long-term investment.”
Another UAH asset for hypersonic research is the Propulsion Research Center, says Jason Cassibry, UAH associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and PRC researcher.
“We have a real scare here, a real threat,” Cassibry says. “Hypersonic missiles present a threat that no modern defense can stop, and we need to come up with solutions to that threat.”