Fast and Formidable

Raytheon is developing missiles that travel at five times the speed of sound

hypersonic missile

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 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently awarded Raytheon a $20 million contract to continue developing highly maneuverable missiles that can travel at speeds in excess of Mach 5 -- five times the speed of sound.

Traditional ballistic missiles already travel at hypersonic speeds. Built to carry nuclear and conventional warheads, these weapons are capable of reaching 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 would allow warfighters to 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 Missile Systems 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.

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. With decades of expertise in advanced guided weapon systems, Raytheon is well-poised to solve the problem.

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

There are two kinds of approaches to solving the hypersonic challenge: "scramjet" and "boost glide." The air-breathing scramjet relies on high speed for its power. As it accelerates, more air and fuel is pushed into the engine, allowing it to accelerate even more -- to hypersonic speeds.

The boost glide model rides a reentry vehicle to extremely high altitudes, where it skips across the Earth's upper atmosphere.

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.

"Our job is to help keep the nation ahead of the threat," said Dave Scott, Raytheon Advanced Missile Systems Business Development vice president. "We're on a fast track to deliver these hypersonic solutions to do just that."

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

The hypersonic missiles are being developed under three U.S. government contracts, and with an investment from Raytheon itself. According to Toal, 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

Last Updated: 12/11/2017