The United States is behind on hypersonics, and big science questions loom on delivery of supplies via rocket ships, but the United States has finally adopted a risk-tolerant approach to science and technology experimentation that will allow for big breakthroughs in the future, the chief technologist at the Air Force Research Lab said.
Speaking at the 8th annual Defense One Tech Summit, Timothy Bunning, chief technical officer for the AFRL, said the lab is using simulation and virtual environments to a great extent on advanced hypersonic weapons. The U.S. has made progress but still does not have the necessary testing ranges to be able to operate as rapidly as they would like.
“We do not have the testing ranges we require to operate as quickly as possible, he stated.
Bunning’s not the only Defense Department official who has mentioned the lack of adequate testing ranges to develop hypersonics. Even after the United States inked a deal with Australia in 2019 to co-experiment, the range issue “is not solved. We had an examination by a scientific advisory board of a program for hypersonics and…they said that this is the number one threat. 1 threat right now to the portfolio.”
The U.S. is behind China and Russia in fielding advanced hypersonic weapons; Russia is actively using such weapons in Ukraine. At the same time, the U.S. has poured itself into various research efforts, some of which have panned out better than others.
But Bunning cautioned that reading too much into “failures” could put the U.S. back in the position it was in 2012, when it first pivoted away from hypersonic research and development following another “failure,” allowing that research gap with China and Russia to emerge.
“These systems are complex, and sometimes things can go wrong. We have to accept that this failure will happen. We certainly know the other side is doing lots of tests, and they fail all the time and maybe don’t have the political pressure, public pressure, negative pressure, that comes along with the test.”
And, he said, military leaders and lawmakers are finally in a position to support ambitious experimentation. “I think there’s a recognition, you know, that we’re coming out of an…era where we could do what we wanted in permissive environments…therefore, we need to change the kit that we have. And it’s gonna take some development of the concepts, evolvement of the technologies, and with that comes the need to do things with a risk posture that’s maybe a little bit different than what we had, you know, say 10 years ago. So our interactions with Congress have been very, very positive.”
One initiative that is still at the beginning stages of development, called Rocket Cargo, uses hypersonic technologies to transport supplies and weapons from point A to B. It can reduce the amount of time needed to ship equipment from point A to point B from days to just hours.
“We have broken down the problem into its technical components and are trying to test the concept in both the real world and on the computer, he explained.
The lab has joined forces with SpaceX to conduct research. However, there is still a long way to go to get the green light. This is in part due to its quest for answers to previously unanswered questions. “We can throw out a big cargo pack out the back of a C-130 flying at 10,000 feet with parachute, and it drops. Well, can I drop something out of a rocket that’s traveling Mach, you know, five? Something that’s a heck of a lot bigger 100 tons? … How would we go about reconstituting a landing pad that had the right performance specs in a short period of time? Is there new technology that can do that?”
The lab is still working to determine if the idea is truly feasible, he said. But asking those questions is a “high-risk, high-payoff activity.”
“What the teams are trying to do is, you know, ask the ‘what if?’ questions. Can this be done…with quantitative measures? As the teams come together at some point, we’ll assess.”
Bunning’s session will air Wednesday at noon.
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