Peter Almond – The Sunday Times August 3, 2003
THE Pentagon is drawing up plans for a “hypersonic” bomber able to travel more than 10,000 miles around the globe in about two hours.
The Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle (HCV) is designed to fly at a top speed of almost 6,000mph directly from America to neutralise regimes threatening to use weapons of mass destruction. It would avoid the need to rely on forward airbases in unreliable third countries.
Current stealth bombers, such as the B-2, which played a leading role in the Iraq war, only fly at about 650mph, just below the speed of sound.
Last week representatives of companies including Boeing and Britain’s BAE Systems met Pentagon officials in Washington to discuss the plan, codenamed Project Falcon (Force Application and Launch from the Continental US). It has been given impetus by the difficulties of persuading countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey to act as bases for US aircraft in the war on Iraq.
At present, heavy bomber crews have to fly their B-52 or B-2 aircraft in exhausting missions of up to 44 hours from bases in America or Britain. Under Falcon, unmanned craft would instead be used to launch smart weapons.
Before the HCV takes to the skies in around 2025, the Pentagon plans to test the technology using the smaller Common Aero Vehicle (CAV), which is expected to be operational by 2010. The CAV, costing Ł3.5m each, will be launched either from a space-type rocket or from a conventional plane and will match the HCV’s top speed. It will carry up to 1,000lb of smart bombs or missiles and will be able to drop a precision-guided bunker-busting bomb from the edge of space.
The HCV will take off from a conventional runway under its own power and carry up to 12,000lb of bombs. It might act as a “mother ship”, carrying two or more CAVs. The plane could be adapted to carry troops for lightning raids as well.
There is also talk of the HCV being used to launch satellites for both military and commercial use. Because of the high cost and technical difficulties, the military is considering combining with Nasa and the private sector to develop the HCV.
Officials at the US air force’s engineering development centre at Arnold airbase in Tennessee say the only engine likely to be able to produce such speeds is the “scramjet”, which so far has only been demonstrated in short bursts of flight in Australia and on the ground at Arnold.
The HCV would take off using a standard jet engine and be boosted into supersonic speeds at about 450mph by a ramjet. This is a smaller version of a third engine, a scramjet, which would then take over at about 3,600mph.
Andrew Brookes, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the Falcon programme could turn out to be too costly at a time when the US was developing anti- ballistic missile defences and the F-22 stealth fighter.
“What are you going to give up to pay for it?” he asked. “And do you need to do these Buck Rogers things when you still need people on the ground to deal with your enemy?”
Last updated 29/06/2004