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Scramjet propelled warfare to new era { March 29 2004 }

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Warfare propelled to new era
By Mark Odell
Published: March 29 2004 21:36 | Last Updated: March 29 2004 21:36

When elated Nasa scientists disclosed over the weekend that they had flown a revolutionary aero engine at record-breaking speeds, they chose to portray a future of passenger jets whizzing between London and Sydney in two hours.

In the post-Concorde era the promise of an aircraft that can fly hypersonically (at Mach 10, or 10 times the speed of sound) on the edge of space would strike a chord with any long-haul flyer.

Lawrence Huebner, Nasa's lead propulsion engineer, invoked the achievements of the Wright brothers when describing the brief flight of the 12-foot X-43A aircraft, powered by the revolutionary scramjet. "A little over 100 years ago a couple of guys from Ohio flew for 40 metres in the first controlled power flight. We did something very similar in the same amount of time but our vehicle under air-breathing power went over 20km."

The misty-eyed romanticism did the trick as the world's media hailed the achievement as a breakthrough for travellers.

But the reality is darker than the dreams of watching the stars rush by on a 40-minute jaunt from Washington to Paris would suggest.

Paul Beaver, a defence consultant with London-based Ashbourne Beaver Associates, said: "The X-43 has everything to do with defence and very little to do with civil aerospace.

"But if this can be dressed up as a commercial aerospace programme it allows Nasa to access more sources of funding."

If everything goes to plan - and that depends on securing billions of dollars from the US government - the first scramjet-powered aircraft would soar into the sky from a US airbase in the year 2025 carrying a much more deadly cargo than business travellers.

Less than two hours later the Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle would re-enter the atmosphere over an unsuspecting adversary to drop 12,000lb of guided bombs on missile launch sites or command bunkers.

The key to the new engine is that it does not have the limitations of rocket technology in the earth's atmosphere. Rockets can reach speeds of Mach 5 but have to carry both hydrogen and oxygen as fuel onboard. A scramjet can "breathe" the thin air in the upper atmosphere, giving huge weight-savings.

This is the ultimate vision of the scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's top-secret research laboratories, who last year revealed they had revived plans for a long-range high-speed bomber that could reach high enough speeds to skip into space before re-entering the earth's atmosphere over the target.

Project Falcon - or Force Application and Launch from the Continental US in typically unwieldy military-speak - calls for the phased development of a fully reusable aircraft, either crewed or unpiloted, that can strike a target from the continental US anywhere in the world within two hours.

The proposal could not have been better timed. During the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, Pentagon planners were frustrated in their attempts to base invasion forces and strike aircraft in both neighbouring Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The US military is looking to reduce reliance on expensive overseas bases, making a fast bomber that can cover the world from home soil particularly attractive. It would also dispense with negotiating access to the airspace of countries en route to the target.

US military planners believe that by the middle of the next decade advances in radar and missiles could make sorties over heavily defended targets by existing stealth aircraft or those being developed suicidal.

By entering the atmosphere at the last moment, the HCV would require a huge step-change in technology by America's enemies to detect and shoot it down. The weapons would be travelling at high speeds once released, making them hard to intercept and increasing penetrating power.

But the HCV is not the only military use for the technology. In the shorter term Project Falcon calls for development of scramjet-powered missiles or small unpiloted aircraft fired from a conventional aircraft. These could be used to reach mobile ground targets such as Scud launchers more quickly than conventional weapons.

The Pentagon could also use it to build a successor to the SR-71 Blackbird spy aircraft or to power interceptor missiles for the planned ballistic missile defence shield.

Mr Beaver said: "The whole idea of this X-43 air vehicle is to develop a new technology and then allow military planners to imagine the possibilities."

It is not just US military planners. On Monday, a day after Nasa confirmed the successful test, an unnamed Russian defence ministry official told news agencies that scientists had developed a "revolutionary" weapon that would defeat the US missile defence shield.

Speculation among defence analysts is that Russia has been testing similar scramjet engines mounted on ballistic missiles. If true, a new kind of space race has begun.

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