The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the same agency that helped develop the internet, and the Air Force are spearheading a program called the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept. It has awarded defense firms, including Raytheon Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., contracts to work on technologies that would enable an "effective and affordable" air-launched hypersonic cruise missile.
DARPA said an operational prototype of this missile will be flight-tested in 2022 or 2023. A tactical boost-glide weapon, which would accelerate with the help of a rocket before payload separation, could be flight-tested as soon as next year.
Aerospace firm Orbital ATK Inc. also was recently selected to take part in a hypersonic aircraft engine project with DARPA, while military aircraft manufacturers have discussed their own concepts for hypersonic planes.
Nearer term, the Defense Department is prepared to start testing a hypervelocity projectile for gun systems that could reach speeds close to Mach 6, according to reports. The projectile could have implications for future missile defense.
Reliable hypersonics not only could propel missiles to incredible speeds that make them harder to shoot down but also could allow for greater maneuverability at unusual altitudes -- both nearer to the ground and far higher than the range of current missile defense systems, according to a Rand Corp. report released last year.
"There was this old saying that hypersonics was the future and always would be," said Kevin Bowcutt, senior technical fellow and chief scientist for hypersonics at Boeing, who came up with the original concept design for the X-51A in 1995. "Now people believe it. It's real."
The U.S.' current technological emphasis on hypersonics is multifold. Historically, the U.S. has been a leader in this field, and the technology is promising. But development is not being driven by a specific mission need, said James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.
Other analysts have said the current push for hypersonics could be an attempt to discourage other countries from considering hypersonic missile attacks.
But to develop functional hypersonics technology, the U.S. will need to develop engine systems and materials that can operate at high speeds and temperatures for extended periods of time. That research and development cost alone would be significant, and wouldn't even include the billions of dollars needed to develop operational vehicles, experts say.
Tens of billions of dollars could be spent on hypersonics contracts from 2020 to 2035 if the research "comes to fruition in real weapons programs," said Loren Thompson, an aerospace analyst with the Lexington Institute think tank, which receives funding from Lockheed Martin and Boeing.