The United States and Australia have joined forces to build air-launched hypersonic cruise missiles that could shift the military balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.
Defense officials see hypersonics as potentially game-changing weapons. Their ability to travel at speeds greater than Mach 5 with extraordinary maneuverability could provide U.S. and allied forces a new quick-strike option capable of overwhelming enemy defenses, experts say.
The new U.S.-Australian project known as the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment, or SCIFiRE, is an Allied Prototyping Initiative that was formally announced by the two nations in December. The aim is to advance air-breathing hypersonic technologies into full-size prototypes that are cost-effective and provide “a flexible, long-range capability, culminating in flight demonstrations in operationally relevant conditions.”
“This initiative will be essential to the future of hypersonic research and development, ensuring the U.S. and our allies lead the world in the advancement of this transformational warfighting capability,” Michael Kratsios, U.S. acting undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said in a press release.
High-ranking Australian officials are also touting the bilateral effort.
“The SCIFiRE initiative is another opportunity to advance … our Air Combat Capability Program to support joint force effects to advance Australia’s security and prosperity,” said Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, chief of the Royal Australian Air Force.
“Working with our defense scientists here in Australia and our partners in the U.S. Air Force and across the U.S. Department of Defense … we are maximizing our learning during development to better define the capabilities and needs as the system matures,” he added.
While Pentagon officials have made no bones about the fact that developing and fielding hypersonics is a top priority to keep pace with China, Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update only went so far as to say that the government’s plans to acquire advanced strike capabilities would “potentially” include hypersonic weapons.
However, the technology is also a high priority for Canberra, even though the language in the document was “somewhat vague,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior defense analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a prominent think tank.
“The way Australia does policy, I think maybe it’s a little bit more cautious in its public pronouncements than the U.S. is,” he said. “But when you look beneath the surface and you speak to people in defense, it’s a very different picture. They are very focused on this. They are very clear in where they’re going.
“The very fact that we’ve now signed this agreement with the United States a mere few months after the release of the defense strategic update should tell you that we are very committed to developing hypersonic weapons,” he added.
Although the defense strategic update doesn’t explicitly name China as a threat, “everyone understands that’s what the document is about,” Davis said.
The Pentagon has a number of other hypersonics projects underway such as the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, also known as ARRW or “Arrow,” which would utilize rockets to boost the systems into their glide phase.
However, SCIFiRE’s pursuit of air-breathing propulsion technology could offer an advantage by enabling hypersonic missiles to be carried by a broader array of tactical aircraft than the rocket-propelled systems.
“Scramjet technology in cruise missiles allows us to make hypersonic weapons that are cheaper and smaller — small enough to be able to go onto our fighter inventory,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper told reporters during a Defense Writers Group event. “As we look to [aircraft] programs like F-15EX that can carry quite a lot of weapons externally, having something that can be a hypersonic strike platform closer in creates another conundrum for an adversary.”
Davis said the systems could be carried by Australia’s F/A-18F Super Hornets, and perhaps by robotic wingmen that are being designed to accompany fighter jets into battle.
Boeing Australia has already built an Airpower Teaming System drone, and the U.S. Air Force has its own robotic wingman program known as Skyborg.
Jim Faist, the Pentagon’s director of defense research and engineering for advanced capabilities, noted that digital engineering tools will be used to explore options.
“We’re trying to build digital twins of these systems,” he said in an interview. “The hope is that through digital twins, we can accelerate the transition onto many different types of platforms. … It’s part of the design work on SCIFiRE. We’ll be looking at that ease of integration on disparate platforms that we have in the services.”
While the new cruise missiles will initially be deployed on aircraft, Davis envisions the technology evolving over time into sea-launched or ground-launched systems.
“It’s an air-launched hypersonic strike weapon for attacking ground targets or maritime targets, but it also blazes the trail for much more capable, longer-range weapons systems down the track,” Davis said.
Notably, both countries intend for the weapons to remain conventional and not be armed with nuclear warheads.
Pentagon officials see a number of benefits in partnering with Australia.
The U.S. treaty ally was previously a major contributor to a long-running joint research initiative known as the Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation, or HIFiRE, program, which explored the fundamental science of the technology and its potential for next-generation aeronautical systems.
Building the new prototypes and putting them through their paces will require complex infrastructure such as wind tunnels for the development cycle as well as ranges that can accommodate full-scale flight tests, Faist noted.
Australia has “world-class” flight-testing capabilities, he added, including a facility in Woomera.
The Australians also bring a lot of know-how to the table, U.S. officials say.
“They really are excellent in the science and technology of hypersonics and … they have worked closely with us for a long time. And we like working with them,” said Robert Joseph, the U.S. Air Force’s chief scientist.
Additionally, the Asia-Pacific ally will bear an “equitable” portion of the costs of the SCIFiRE project, Faist said. “They do have tremendous investment in this program.”
Canberra’s force structure plan released in 2020 allotted $9.3 billion for high-speed long-range strike and missile defense, including hypersonic development, test and evaluation. The Pentagon is also investing billions of dollars in its hypersonics portfolio.
Faist declined to say how much funding the two sides are allocating for SCIFiRE specifically, but noted that it will be a “larger budget” R&D effort.
There is also an intention to pursue co-production of the systems, which could help drive down costs.
When might the new weapons be battle ready?
“I expect over the next few months as we share our technical data we’ll have a better sense of how quickly we’ll be able to get to fielding, but I’m not predicting long,” Roper told reporters in December.
“Scramjet [propulsion technology development] is moving faster than I expected,” Roper said. “I predicted it would take longer to get those hypersonic engines matured. And thanks to some stellar approaches to manufacturing, the acceleration period is compelling us to go ahead and start thinking through future programs of record.”
The ARRW program started in 2017, and production could kick off as early as 2021, he noted. “I think we can go just as fast on scramjet.”
Faist said flight testing will be completed by 2025, but officials hope to accelerate that timeline.
For Australia, “the aim is to get this sort of capability operational in this decade, because this is the decade of danger where we are going to face the greatest risks from China,” Davis said.
It’s possible that a new weapon could be ready in the next few years, he said.
“We’ve been doing this research now for some time in the university sector,” he noted. “We’ve got that deep background, that foundation of scientific research and development and understanding, and I think that should hopefully accelerate the process of them taking that from essentially a science experiment to an operational piece of capability much more quickly than if we were starting afresh now.”
Steps are being taken to help the technology make it across the so-called “Valley of Death” between R&D and large-scale production.
Faist said there is a commitment by both nations to transition to a program of record if the project is successful.
Although Faist’s office launched the Allied Prototyping Initiative, the Air Force’s Life Cycle Management Center and program executive officer for weapons are responsible for executing SCIFiRE. The same office will also be responsible for overseeing the follow-on effort once the prototyping and flight testing wrap up, Faist noted.
“That was the other part of the decision on where to do this program,” he said. “It made sense to really build up on the Air Force program management side the internal ability to manage and execute on SCIFiRE, so that then the same team can move out on the program of record.”
Faist said source selection for SCIFiRE had not been completed, but generally speaking the Pentagon would like to have multiple suppliers. A follow-on program of record would be re-competed, he noted.
The weapons will likely be purchased in large quantities on par with other tactical air-launched cruise missiles, Faist said.
“Typically you’re going to get a higher number of production buys on these because of affordability,” he said. “This is a big game-changer for a lot of providers to get into the hypersonic business area, whether as a prime or a supplier.”