Air Force X-51A Waverider: faster than Superman
The US Air Force just flew its new X-51A Waverider at five times the speed of sound. It could be used as a hypersonic cruise missile, delivering a warhead to anywhere on earth in an hour.
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On Aug. 20, 1998, for instance, US warships in the Arabian sea launched a cruise missile attack on an alleged Al Qaeda training camp in eastern Afghanistan in the belief that Osama bin Laden was on site. The Tomahawks took two hours to fly the 1,100 miles to their target. By the time they arrived, reportedly he was gone.Skip to next paragraph
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One candidate for Prompt Global Strike is a Trident II submarine-launched missile equipped with a conventional warhead. ICBMs reach targets in minutes. Subs can be parked clandestinely in watery spots all over the globe.
But Trident IIs also carry nuclear warheads. Detecting a Trident launch could make other nuclear powers very nervous. Under extreme circumstances, they might consider quickly launching their own missiles, rather than have them caught by a surprise nuclear strike and destroyed on the ground.
Mach 6 a possibility
Waverider would not have this problem. Its angular snout and flattened body, designed to take advantage of lift from the shock waves generated by its hypersonic speed, look like no other air vehicle. And it might, eventually, sustain Mach 6 or greater speeds over extensive distances.
A potential weapon developed from the X-51A could reach Mach 8, enabling it to travel 600 nautical miles in eight minutes, notes a 2007 Air Force Research Laboratory briefing on “Disruptive Technology: Hypersonic Propulsion.”
Such a missile could carry a 300-pound payload – including conventional explosives, “smart” submunitions, or a penetrator to attack deeply buried targets, says the AFRL briefing.
Hypersonic scramjets might then develop along a stair-step upward path, building on previous models, according to the briefing. Medium-size scramjets could provide expendable, on-demand lift into space. Large models might make possible quick, manned space access – or a so-called “Orient Express” aircraft capable of flying from New York to Tokyo at fantastic speed.