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Agence France Presse July 02, 2003

US launches effort to develop hypersonic strike capability

By Maxim Kniazov

The US military has launched a program to develop a hypersonic unmanned aircraft able to strike any target around the globe in less than two hours from the United States, authorities said.

Project FALCON could revolutionize modern warfare and deeply affect the US strategic posture and foreign policy.

"This capability would free the US military from reliance on forward basing to enable it to react promptly and decisively to destabilizing and threatening actions by hostile countries and terrorist organizations," said the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as it began soliciting bids for the program.

The Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle, as the concept drone is called, should be able to take off from a US air base, fly 14,400 kilometers (9,000 miles) in under 120 minutes and deliver an assortment of smart bombs and cruise missiles weighing up to 5.4 tonnes to a chosen target, according to defense officials.

The system should be ready for deployment circa 2025.

In the interim, the Pentagon plans to rely on a glider that should be able to deliver 450 kilograms (1,000 pounds) of munitions to a distance of 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles) at hypersonic speeds.

The glider, which the military wants in its arsenal by about 2010, will be propelled to its target by a low-cost launch vehicle that should also be able to deliver satellites into orbit, the agency pointed out.

According to defense officials, project FALCON was spurred by lessons learned during the conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq when the United States had to engage in lengthy, costly and tortuous negotiations with foreign nations about bases and overflight rights.

The conflicts "underscored both the capabilities and limitations of United States air forces in terms of placing ordnance on military targets."

Saudi Arabia, for instance, imposed limits on the use of its Prince Sultan Air Base before the conflict with Iraq, while access to bases in Pakistan ahead of the Afghanistan war in 2000 was only gained after lengthy negotiations.

"The current and future international political environment severely contrains this country's ability to conduct long-range strike missions on high-value, time critical targets from outside" the continental United States, the Pentagon research agency concluded.

The US quest for hypersonic technology goes back to the long-forgotten Copper Canyon project launched by President Ronald Reagan in 1982.

It called for building an aerospace plane that would fly at 25 times the speed of sound, covering the distance between Washington and Tokyo in under two hours by flying part of the trip in low orbit.

The aircraft was supposed to use a so-called air-breathing ramjet engine, where thrust is created by water vapor ejected as a result of burning a mix of liquid hydrogen and compressed hot air sucked in from outside into the combustion chamber.

Technical problems and cost overruns eventually forced the US government to put the ambitious plan to the back burner.

But recent advances in propulsion technology and the availability of new materials have prompted the United States to have another look at the old designs, the sources said.

"I think that their conclusion from that exercise was that a Mach 12 suborbital air-breather might be within the realm of possibility," John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington area think tank, told AFP.

The secretive Pentagon gave a hint of its new project on March 31, when Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Michael Wynne asked the Senate Subcommittee on Emerging Threats for a 150-million-dollar increase in funding for hypersonic strike capability.

"Technology has progressed to the point where we believe that demonstrations of Mach 12 by 2012 are within reach," Wynne told lawmakers.


Copyright 2003, Agence France Presse