Lockheed hails progress on hypersonic military aircraft

Robert Wright in Arlington

An artist's impression of the HTV-3X, which Lockheed says is capable of operating stably from takeoff up to six times the speed of sound.
An artist's impression of Lockheed Martin's hypersonic jet

Lockheed Martin revealed on Tuesday it is on the brink of a technological breakthrough that could lead to the US developing military aircraft that can fly six times the speed of sound.

Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed’s chief executive, outlined the proposed hypersonic aircraft as she also disclosed the company was working on a laser weapon that could be used on the battlefield.

At the company’s annual media day, Ms Hewson expressed optimism about future US military budgets following years of cutbacks.

She said that lawmakers seemed set to pass an increase in the budget for 2016-17.
However, her most eye-catching remarks were about innovation. She said a series of technological advances were on the verge of making possible weapons systems that had been mooted for years but never come to fruition.

A hypersonic aircraft would give US military planners a significant advantage in reaching targets before opponents had time to react.

However, military engineers have struggled for decades with so-called scramjet engine technology to power such an aircraft.

Fuel burns in a stream of air moving at supersonic speeds inside the engine, but there have been far reaching questions about the technology’s efficiency and stability.

“We’re proving a hypersonic aircraft can be produced at an affordable price,” said Ms Hewson.

Referring to Lockheed’s F22, the most sophisticated US fighter jet, Ms Hewson said: “We estimate it [the hypersonic aircraft] will cost less than $1bn to develop, build, and fly a demonstrator aircraft the size of an F-22.”
The aircraft would be capable of speeds up to six times the speed of sound, or Mach 6.

Orlando Carvalho, head of Lockheed’s aeronautics division, said the company had been working on an engine involving scramjet technology for the hypersonic aircraft with Aerojet Rocketdyne, the rocket manufacturer.

He added that given Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engine work and Lockheed’s efforts on materials for the aircraft, innovation was “much more rapid” at present than in the past.

“That said, it’s going to require a significant amount of development work, investment and maturing of the technology,” said Mr Carvalho.
Lockheed envisages working on the hyposonic project throughout the 2020s, with aircraft potentially entering service in the 2030s.

A hypersonic aircraft can be produced at an affordable price

Richard Aboulafia, analyst at the Teal Group, said the idea of having hypersonic jets available was “extremely attractive” for military planners.
But it was unclear the fundamental problems around scramjet technology had been resolved. Ms Hewson insisted the proposed hypersonic aircraft had produced a “controllable, low-drag, aerodynamic configuration capable of stable operation from take-off… to Mach 6”.

Meanwhile, she showed a slide of an experiment involving a laser weapon, where a hole had been burnt in the bonnet of a pick-up truck, disabling its engine. The truck was similar to those used by insurgent groups.
Ms Hewson said the challenge with the technology was both to increase the power of the laser and reduce its weight. She also said Lockheed was working on a missile capable of Mach 20.

News of the innovation comes as Lockheed reshapes itself. Last year, the company agreed to buy Sikorsky, the helicopter manufacturer.

Lockheed hails progress on hypersonic military aircraft - FT.com