Fast and formidable

Raytheon is developing missiles that travel at 5X the speed of sound

Hypersonic missile illustration

An artist’s rendering illustrates what a hypersonic missile could look like as it travels along the edge of Earth's atmosphere.

Here's how you face the global threats of the future: with a new type of missile so fast it could travel from New York to Los Angeles in 39 minutes flat.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded Raytheon a $63 million contract to continue developing highly maneuverable missiles that can travel at speeds in excess of Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound.

Traditional ballistic missiles already travel at hypersonic speeds. Built to carry nuclear and conventional warheads, they can reach outer space in the course of their flights, but they can't maneuver. The latest class of hypersonic missiles would be smaller, guided and designed to carry conventional explosives for time-sensitive, rapid response in theater operations.

Launched from the ground, aircraft, surface ships or submarines, hypersonic missiles could strike time-critical targets at long range much more quickly than today's conventional weapons, and would be very difficult to intercept.

"Hypersonic weapons can be more survivable because of the extreme speed and high altitude. They would be hard to stop," said J.R. Smith, director of Raytheon's Advanced Land Warfare Systems.

At Raytheon's Missile Systems business in Tucson, Arizona, engineers are working to overcome the challenges posed by the combination of speed and the extreme environmental conditions in which the missiles must operate. 

"Hypersonics are the new frontier of missile design and development," said Dr. Tom Bussing, vice president of Raytheon's Advanced Missile Systems.

Because the missile heats up as it accelerates through the atmosphere, its sensitive inner electronics must be protected from blazing temperatures without adding extra weight, which can affect speed and guidance. Raytheon is using advanced materials to build heat shields that cocoon and shield the electronics inside the missile.

It's also challenging to control the missile's guidance systems at high speeds. Raytheon is relying on its decades of expertise in advanced guided weapon systems to solve the problem.

"It's our culture," said Raytheon's Chris Toal, technical lead for Advanced Air and Missile Defense, adding that the company "excels at successfully combining propulsion, guidance control, sensors and payload into one package."

There are two approaches to solving the hypersonic challenge, known as scramjet and boost glide. 

The air-breathing scramjet relies on high speed for its power. As it accelerates, more air and fuel are pushed into the engine, allowing it to accelerate to hypersonic speeds.

For a tactical-range boost glide weapon to achieve hypersonic speeds, "a rocket accelerates its payload to high speeds. The payload then separates from the rocket and glides unpowered to its destination," according to the DARPA website.

Hypersonics won't replace today's weapons, but they will complement the many sub- and supersonic missiles already in the U.S. military's inventory.

Flight tests for Raytheon's hypersonic missiles are expected in two to four years.

The hypersonic missiles are being developed under multiple U.S. government contracts, and with an investment from Raytheon itself. According to Toal, U.S. Department of Defense technology development efforts helped to mature the technologies needed for hypersonic weapons.

"It's no longer science fiction," he said. "It could soon be science fact."

Published On: 06/08/2015
Last Updated: 05/10/2019