University of Arizona strives to close the gap in the hypersonic arms race

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) — The United States has joined a security alliance to develop hypersonic missiles.

The United States, United Kingdom and Australia will not only work to develop these missiles, but will find a way to stop them.

This comes as Russia fired hypersonic missiles at Ukraine.

“Hypersonic weapons are so fast, so maneuverable that modern defenses can’t really stop them,” said Dr. Alex Craig, assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of Arizona.

“Russia and China in particular have been working in this area. Honestly, they’re probably ahead of us right now,” Craig said.

Craig directs the university’s Boundary Layer Stability and Transition Laboratory, which includes this hypersonic wind tunnel capable of testing at air speeds of up to Mach 5, five times the speed of sound or about 3 800 miles per hour.

Wind tunnels like the one at the University of Arizona help researchers study the effects of hypersonic speeds.

Craig said that after the Cold War, the United States began dismantling wind tunnels and other ground-testing infrastructure while others, like China, continued to build.

“So now they have a certain level of ability that we don’t have anymore and that makes it difficult to catch up,” Craig said.

Craig said weapons that travel at hypersonic speeds aren’t new.

For example, ballistic missiles can travel at Mach 5, but they fly at a more predictable arc.

“What’s new about this kind of latest batch of systems being developed is the ability for them to maneuver into their target’s path. So it’s much harder to predict and much harder to stop. said Craig.

Craig said hypersonic research in the United States has accelerated rapidly in recent years.

This year alone, the university announced that the Department of Defense and the State of Arizona awarded researchers a total of $10 million to support a series of upgrades to its hypersonic facilities.

The new trilateral cooperation with the UK and Australia will also advance hypersonic research as it seeks to expand information sharing to deepen defense innovation cooperation.

Meanwhile, Russia’s combat debut with the hypersonic missile has many, including Craig, asking, “why?”

“Honestly, I was a little surprised when we found out they were using one of these systems,” Craig said. “Maybe it’s because Russia is trying to send a message to the West by basically saying, ‘Hey, we have these systems.’ The other being that they’ve run out of long-range precision missiles, and have had to tap into their higher-level capabilities.

Craig said that while the hypersonic missile Russia launched at Ukraine is formidable, he is confident that Russia has more threatening hypersonic weapons in its arsenal.

“They haven’t opened their whole bag of tricks yet. They didn’t unleash all they could,” Craig said.

Although there is no effective defense against this type of technology, Craig is optimistic that with more funding and research this will change.

“We will find ways to stop this. If our opponents have that ability, we need a way to deter them from using it and one of the ways to do that is to have a reciprocal ability that you can respond with,” Craig said.

Copyright 2022 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.

Martin E. Berry