Commentary | U.S.-Australian Partnership Could Help Hypersonics Take Off

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The coming of the U.S. Marine Corps for a six-month rotation in the training areas of Northern Australia is a concrete manifestation of the United States and Australia deepening their working relationship in shaping 21st-century Pacific defense capabilities. The Aussies are engaged in significant defense modernization projects, such as the KC-30A Airbus tanker, the Wedgetail air battle management system and the F-35. Along with these projects, the Aussies are engaged in significant research in the field of hypersonics and have partnered with the U.S. on some of the basic research. However, going forward the United States should consider extending the excellent working relationship with Australia in this area.

Too often there tends to be an attitude in Washington of fiscal limits overcoming modernization. Yet when one looks at the Pacific, key allies are investing in defense modernization and in significant innovations as well. The opportunity is to shape convergent modernization to the benefit of the United States and its allies to deal with the challenges from China and North Korea. It is not us versus the Chinese; it is the allied engagement shaping deterrence in depth against a China with no strategic allies, other than Russia and North Korea.

Recent Chinese tests on hypersonics have underscored that several countries are working to be able to build operational hypersonics platforms, for a variety of purposes. You wouldn’t want to be second to the table with a hypersonic strike missile.

Partnering with a solid ally like Australia can help ensure that does not happen to the United States. But this requires significant commitment to steady investment in the hypersonics research area. 

Australia has a small but cutting-edge team of hypersonic researchers, with the test ranges to play out the evolving technologies, and with significant global working relationships. Research in this field can clearly yield possible capabilities for space access as well, with an ability to launch rapidly intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and command-and-control capabilities for Australia and as part of the effort to overcome the tyranny of distance to deal with longer-range threats and challenges. In fact, hypersonic “air-breathing” engines may be the only solution for dramatic reductions in the cost of launching payloads to orbit. 

During a recent visit to Australia, I had a chance to visit several defense installations, including a hypersonics research area. I visited with Dr. Allan Paull and members of the Defence Science and Technology Organization (DSTO) hypersonic team located close to Brisbane. Dr. Paull made it clear that the team was small but effective. “We combine the skills of several disciplines but each member of the team takes ownership of the entire effort and provides inputs to each and every aspect of the enterprise,” he said. “We are not organized around a model of deep-pocket experts who stay within the confines of their specialty; we interact across the enterprise to push the research effort forward.”

Dr. Paull emphasized that the hypersonic effort required progress in several technologies at the same time, materials, propulsion, computation, etc.

Visiting the workroom of the DSTO where two hypersonic vehicles are being assembled certainly reinforced the point that several moving parts are being worked toward the next hypersonic test.

The main takeaway from the discussion with Dr. Paull was rather straightforward: “By 2015 we will have finished our current round of tests, and by that time there is little question but that the basic scramjet technology works and can be leveraged moving forward.”

A key hypersonics program is the Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation, or HiFire. Australia has worked with the U.S. Air Force in building out a full set of HiFire test vehicles. The objectives of the program are twofold: to develop the science and technology for hypersonic flight with air-breathing propulsion, and to complete a horizontal flight of a scramjet-powered vehicle for a duration of 30 seconds.

An interesting aspect of the Aussie effort has been to build an engine that can reach hypersonic speeds but fits into the center of a vehicle, thus allowing for an axisymmetric configuration. The team is working on a number of innovations to achieve this result. 

Such an engine, if proven, would be a major step forward in making practical use of scramjet technology. If this capability works effectively and can be replicated from a manufacturing point of view, then the path toward achieving hypersonic missiles seems open. HiFire is testing high angle of attack flight profiles as well, which adds a potential of maneuverability to speed.

Much has been achieved by Australia already, working in concert with its partners in hypersonic research in a period of less than a decade. But the importance of this effort, and the need to be on the cutting edge, is clear. 

The basic hypersonics research effort is being worked for a baseline space system as well. This program, called Scramspace, is the first and largest project funded by the Australian Space Research Program. The program is working on a Mach 8 flight experiment that entails both ground and air tests, with the ground tests on the vehicles working at up to Mach 14 and the flight test focused on a free-flying scramjet at Mach 8.

The first free flight test for Scramspace was conducted in Norway but did not achieve the desired results. The first-stage rocket motor malfunctioned, which led to the test not being able to deliver the requisite hypersonic flight data.

The Aussies are building a number of hypersonic vehicles and doing ground tests on these vehicles and preparing for future flight tests as well. Tests for the HiFire program are performed on the extraordinary Woomera Test Range in South Australia. This is a very large area where the vehicles can be recovered and then fully examined to determine their performance parameters. It is not a well-instrumented range, but with proper funding could be. 

The U.S. hypersonics program needs a practical focus, as well as a funding and priority boost. Partnering with Australia could boost the effort by providing for a best value partner, an effective test range, innovative thinking and capabilities from that partner, and an ability to provide that partner with capabilities that it may lack or would find prohibitively expensive to provide.

For example, if one wished to do a test replicating what the Chinese just did, it would cost three to five times more in the United States than in Australia. By building a solid working relationship and joint development, access to the Australian range would make sense for both sides, and a more cost effective and capable result could be achieved in a more timely manner. 

After my visit I had a chance to discuss my findings with Dr. Mark Lewis, former chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force and a leading researcher in hypersonics. He underscored the importance of boosting the partnership going forward for a number of reasons. 

“This is an important relationship because the Australians bring significant intellectual contributions to the table,” he said. “They also have important practical flight experience; we can even argue that they flew the very first flying scramjet under their HyShot program, which was a precursor to HiFire. They have an extraordinary test range.”

Much like the global F-35 would not exist without allies and partners, the effort to work with core partners on other 21st century capabilities is crucial as well. There is none more so than a steadily and fully funded Australian-U.S. partnership in hypersonics. 

 

Robbin Laird is co-founder of Second Line of Defense and an analyst of defense, space and security issues, based in Paris and Washington.