An experimental scramjet-powered, ultrahigh speed strike vehicle is emerging as the Pentagon's main choice for a new long-range, rapid attack weapon, a senior Pentagon official says.
Alan R. Shaffer, principal deputy assistant defense secretary for research and engineering, told a defense industry conference that prototypes and recent tests proved concepts for hypersonic arms, and several systems are part of a high-priority effort by Pentagon weapons developers, despite the era of sharply-diminished defense spending.
Hypersonic vehicles can deliver nuclear or conventional payloads in precision strikes against increasingly hard-to-penetrate air defenses of countries like China, Russia and Iran, he said.
"We, the U.S., do not want to be the second country to understand how to have controlled scramjet hypersonics," Mr. Shaffer told the Precision Strike Association's annual review on Tuesday.
The comments come 2 1/2 months after China's surprise Jan. 9 test of a new hypersonic glide vehicle, dubbed the Wu-14. That ultrahigh speed maneuvering vehicle test represents a major challenge for current U.S. missile defenses, which are designed to counter non-maneuvering ballistic missile threats.
Lee Fuell, a technical intelligence specialist with the Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center, told a congressional China commission hearing Jan. 31 that China's hypersonic glide vehicle is a ballistic missile-launched system that glides and maneuvers to its target at speeds up to Mach 10 (about 7,611 mph).
"At this point, we think that's associated with their nuclear deterrent forces," said Mr. Fuell, who noted the Chinese could use the system with conventional warheads for long-range precision strikes.
Mr. Shaffer declined to comment on how the Chinese hypersonic test has changed U.S. plans for hypersonic weapons.
But the senior weapons research official said the Pentagon's most promising hypersonic vehicle is the X-51, a cruise missile-sized weapon powered by an advanced engine called a scramjet. The X-51, developed by Boeing, flies at up to 3,882 mph, or Mach 5.1, and is launched from under the wing of a B-52 bomber.
The experimental aircraft is a good candidate to win this year's Collier Trophy, the annual award recognizing the most significant recent achievement in air or space flight, Mr. Shaffer said.
Mr. Shaffer said hypersonic weapons, when fully developed, will be less expensive than current jets and cruise missiles powered by complex turbine engines with many parts. A scramjet, or supersonic combusting ramjet, hypersonic vehicle has few moving parts.
After three difficult tests, including one described awkwardly by testers as an "un-ignition event," the X-51 scored a breakthrough last year. During a successful flight test, the vehicle flew for just 300 seconds but traveled several thousand miles and reached a height of 80,000 feet — considered near-space — at over Mach 5.
"It's the second time we have shown a scramjet can ignite and give positive acceleration," Mr. Shaffer said. "That is a huge deal. That means we are now starting to understand hypersonics."
The next step is for weapons engineers to make the system affordable, and Mr. Shaffer urged engineers to tackle the problem.
Another hypersonic weapon on the Pentagon's drawing board is the HTV-2, or Hypersonic Technology Vehicle, that is boosted by a missile — like the Chinese WU-14 — and then maneuvers and glides to its target at very high speeds.
Mr. Shaffer said that system in tests flew a long distance at very high speeds and made a controlled re-entry. Despite not meeting test goals, the tests generated substantial data.
Another system is the Army's Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, a missile-launched glide vehicle that had a successful test. It will fly at speeds faster than Mach 5.
A fourth system is the hypersonic international flight research experimentation program or Hifire, a Mach 8 weapon being developed with Australia.
A briefing slide during Mr. Shaffer's talk emphasized the benefits of hypersonic weapons as — long range, high speed and effective payloads.
The weapons will provide "rapid, responsive strike in anti-access/access denied environments" — the Pentagon euphemism for China's high-technology weapons designed to push U.S. forces out of Asia.
KIEV: RUSSIAN SUBVERSION
Russia's military forces are not the only problem for Ukraine: Reports from the region indicate that Russian saboteurs are working to foment instability and increase pro-Russian sentiment, especially in the eastern part of the former Soviet republic.
Ukrainian Justice Minister Pavlo Petrenko told reporters Monday in Kiev that security services are seeking to counter Russian sabotage groups in the southern and eastern regions.
Mr. Petrenko said intelligence has identified "specially trained sabotage groups for destabilizing the situation in the southern and eastern regions." The groups are engaged in subversion, he said.
"At present, Ukraine's security services are working out special measures for the liquidation and detention of these sabotage groups that are operating in the east," Mr. Petrenko said, according to the Kiev online news outlet Ukrainska Pravda.
The minister denounced members of the Crimea legislature following Sunday's vote of independence from Ukraine, and Russia's expected annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
The Security Service of Ukraine, internal security forces known as SBU, told the Unian news agency Friday that it had captured a Russian GRU military intelligence officer as part of a sweep of subversives.
The agent was arrested at a checkpoint near Kherson, north of Crimea, and was armed with an AKC-74 assault rifle and five magazines. He was dressed in the black uniform of the Russian special operations forces but without any Russian military insignia.
"The foreigner had on him several IDs issued for different names," the security service said in a statement. "The SBU obtained a document confirming that the detainee is an employee of the military intelligence of the Russian Armed Forces."
The service said the Russian was engaged in intelligence gathering and subversion in the Kherson region.
Military analysts said the captured commando is likely part of the two main military forces that took over the Crimea in early March. Those forces have been identified as elements of Russian 76th Guards Air Assault Division, based in Pskov near St. Petersburg, and a GRU special operations unit based at Kubinka, near Moscow.
Black-clad "Spetsnaz" commandos with no Russian military insignia also conducted operations in Chechnya in 1994.
SAUDIS SHIFT EAST FROM U.S.
Saudi Arabia is moving away from its long, close relationship with the U.S. as a result of the Obama administration's policies in the Middle East.
Instead of relying on the U.S., Riyadh is moving closer to the Pakistan, fueling new concerns about a secret agreement between the two states to share Pakistan's nuclear weapons in a future crisis or conflict.
Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Salman Bin-Abd-al-Aziz Al Saud visited Pakistan last month and reports of the visit indicate the Saudis are looking at buying Chinese-designed JF-17 multi-role combat fighter from Pakistan this year.
Additionally, Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan reportedly visited Pakistan's Heavy Industries Taxila regarding a deal to purchase the Chinese-Pakistani Al-Khalid tank.
Newsweek reported in January that the Saudis also secretly purchased medium-range DF-21 missiles from China in 2007. The road-mobile DF-21 is one of China's most advanced systems, and the new missile reportedly is meant to upgrade Riyadh's aging DF-5 intermediate-range missiles — nuclear-capable weapons that analysts say are not accurate enough to be useful for conventional warheads.
The DF-21, by contrast, is the basis for China's advanced DF-21D, a precision-guided ballistic missile capable of hitting U.S. aircraft carriers at sea.
The shift in military alignment away from the United States and toward China and Pakistan is being read in Washington as a sign of Saudi Arabia's anger over certain U.S. policies. The Saudis are not happy with the U.S.-led talks with Iran that have legitimatized Tehran's uranium enrichment. The two countries also differ on how to deal with the civil war in Syria.
The Saudis also are said to be upset at the declining interest by the U.S. in Middle East affairs and the tendency of the Obama administration to mishandle its friends and allies while reaching out to enemies in the region.
• Contact Bill Gertz at @BillGertz.
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