The UK Royal Air Force (RAF) has announced a £10m contract to develop hypersonic weapons and propulsion systems that would make the RAF the world’s fastest air force.
The systems are set to be integrated with current and future aircraft and would make them capable of flying at more than Mach 5, five times the speed of sound. They are being developed by Rolls-Royce, Reaction Engines and BAE Systems under the direction of the Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO).
The plans were revealed by senior RAF officials at the Chief of the Air Staff’s Air & Space Power Conference (ASPC). The RAF wants the systems to be used with 4th, 5th and 6th generation fighters.
The Ministry of Defence (MOD) chief of staff for capability and force development Air Vice-Marshal Simon Rochelle said: “In 2030, more than 80% of the NATO ORBAT [Order of Battle] will be made up of 4th Generation aircraft.
“Now, imagine all those aircraft firing thousands of Mach 5 missiles into the fight!”
The hypersonic weaponry will allow ageing 4th generation fighters like the British Aerospace Hawk 200 and Eurofighter Typhoon to keep pace with advanced surface-to-air and air-to-air systems. The weapons will also enhance the capabilities of the RAF’s newly operational F-35B fleet.
Chief of the air staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier said: “These will be designed and tested over the next two years, paving the way for the UK to become a centre of excellence in this technology and contribute to meeting future UK defence needs.”
He added: “This is not an idea, a lot of this technology now exists. What we are doing is providing additional investment and additional focus for that project so that we can deliver a military utility out of it.”
Mach 5, around 4,000 mph, is the lower threshold for hypersonic speeds. The new systems would allow the RAF to outpace other countries’ munitions. The current fastest missile in use is the Indian and Russian made BrahMos which travels at between Mach 2 and Mach 3, or2,200 mph.
Hillier said: “They [Russia and China] are able to move forward in generations of capability much more quickly. If we are going to maintain our competitive advantage, we are going to have to move faster.”
Rolls-Royce director of business development and future programmes Alex Zino said: “Rolls-Royce will work closely with the UK MOD and our partners BAE Systems and Reaction Engines to conduct and coordinate research into high Mach advanced propulsion systems.
“Going forward, this collaboration will allow us to focus on enabling innovative technologies for increased aircraft performance and capability.”
Sharing a joint-statement Rolls-Royce, Reaction Engines and BAE Systems said: “By bringing together acknowledged aerospace innovation capability from British companies, Rolls-Royce, Reaction Engines and BAE Systems, critical high Mach propulsion technology elements will be developed over the next 2 years, paving the way for a UK centre of excellence in this technology and contributing to meeting UK MOD future defence needs.
“This work highlights the importance of collaboration with our partners and will allow us to focus on developing innovative technologies for increased aircraft performance and capability.”
The US Department of Defense (DoD) is also looking into hypersonic weaponry, recently awarding a $930m contract to Lockheed Martin to develop the systems. Russia and China are also looking to develop hypersonic systems.