DARPA finds itself in rare position: playing catch-up

DARPA finds itself in rare position: playing catch-up

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DARPA’s Materials Architectures and Characterization for Hypersonics (MACH) program seeks new materials and designs for cooling the hot leading edges of hypersonic vehicles traveling more than five times the speed of sound (Artist rendition, DARPA)

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon begins the new year behind China and Russia in key futurist areas of hypersonic and artificial intelligence, placing new and unusual pressure on its research and development wing to come from behind and take the lead.

Usually, it is DARPA – the Defense Advanced Projects Agency — that has research entities in other governments chasing what it creates. This time, especially in hypersonic, DARPA is both playing catch up while seeking primacy via its own breakthroughs.

DARPA plans to accelerate its efforts to find and create materials to help aircraft survive high speeds — critical for developing and using high-speech hypersonics. There are also reports that DARPA will try and leapfrog other nations in a quest to create counter-hypersonic weapons — a move that would be vintage DARPA.

A DARPA spokesperson declined to comment.

Hypersonics are usually defined as missiles and aircraft that fly at speeds of Mach 5 or above – five times the speed of sound.

On Thursday, DARPA announced a new program with the Air Force to improve technologies for more effective and affordable air-launched hypersonic missiles.

The program is called the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC). The program centers on flight demonstrations to “gauge, improve and make consistent advanced air vehicle configurations capable of efficient hypersonic flight, hydrocarbon scramjet-powered propulsion to enable sustained hypersonic cruise, approaches to managing the thermal stresses of high-temperature cruise, and affordable system designs and manufacturing approaches,” according to DARPA’s website.

“Developing structures that can withstand furnace-like temperatures at such high speeds is a technical challenge, especially for leading edges that bear the brunt of the heat,” DARPA said, on a posting on its website. “The key is developing scalable materials architectures that enable mass transport to spread and reject heat. If successful, we could see a breakthrough in mitigating aerothermal effects at the leading edge that would enhance hypersonic performance.”

DARPA previously announced the Materials Architectures and Characterization for Hypersonics (MACH) program to address the thermal challenge. It has scheduled a “Proposers Day” event that will outline the needs of the program to potential creators for January 22 in Arlington, Virginia.

“The MACH program seeks to develop and demonstrate new design and material solutions for sharp, shape-stable, cooled leading edges for hypersonic vehicles,” DARPA said on its website.

Most independent analysts say that China and Russia are more advanced in some critical areas of hypersonic. China held successful tests for three different hypersonic missiles in 2018, which Pentagon officials have acknowledged on background. Russia claims to have had a successful test in 2018.

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