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Hypersonic jets, lasers are the future for Air Force researchers

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio — Air Force hypersonic weapons and fighter jets with lasers could fly in the skies of the future.

Air Force Research Laboratory researchers have made top priorities of hypersonics, directed-energy weapons and autonomy links between operators and machines, according to Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Masiello, AFRL commander.

In an interview, the two-star general outlined where the next generation of hypersonic weapon systems and advanced research will take the agency with about 9,700 employees. The science and technology agency has a total budget of about $4 billion, half of which is paid for by outside customers, such as government agencies like NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and defense contractors.

In one of the most ground-breaking aerospace experiments, the scramjet engine powered, needle-shaped X-51 Waverider reached Mach 5.5 a year ago in a flight test over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. The AFRL aerospace systems directorate at Wright-Patterson managed the $300 million hypersonic experiment. AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing, and materials and manufacturing, and sensors directorates are also based at Wright-Patterson.

“This is the first time that we proved that (hypersonic) technology is viable for that sort of platform and that’s essentially a weapon,” Masiello said. “What hypersonics does is it really compresses a potential adversary’s decision-making ability.”

AFRL has partnered with the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency to build a prototype weapon based on scramjet technology, he said.

“We believe with those platforms, if we can truly develop a hypersonic weapon, that’s a game changer,” said AFRL Executive Director Ricky L. Peters.

AFRL has made a priority of more advanced technology demonstrations, the agency says. On the horizon, a second demonstration research project with DARPA will demonstrated hypersonic speeds with a tactical-boost glide rocket, Masiello said.

Directed-energy weapons, such as lasers and cruise missiles with microwave beams, are a high priority area.

An advanced cruise missile with a microwave-emitting payload knocked out electronic information systems on the ground in AFRL tests, Masiello said. “The purpose of that weapon is to non-kinetically take out computers and IT infrastructure,” the two-star general said.

The three-year test, dubbed the counter-electronics high-powered microwave advanced missile project, or CHAMP, flew over a Utah range.

“We were very successful in flying in a cruise missile a directed energy, high-powered weapon last year,” Peters said. “If we can miniaturize that so that it could carry it on those platforms than we’ve got another gamer changer.”

Within the next couple of years, AFRL may test a laser pod on an F-15-sized fighter, Masiello said. It may be enough to knock out an infrared missile and larger targets by 2030 or beyond, he said.

“That’s still decades away, but we’re marching to that technology road map to accomplish that,” he said.

Autonomy has focused in part on the relationship between a single pilot controlling multiple unmanned aerial vehicles. The 711th Human Performance Wing has explored ways to ease the burden of the flood of information operators face flying drones.

The scientific and research agency has marked as “high value” the pursuit of more fuel-efficient jet engines with greater range, alternative fuels, jamming resistant Global Positioning System navigation, and alternative navigation methods that rely on ground based or star tacking, and data analysis of imagery, signals, audio, text and media.

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