Who’s In Charge of Catching Up to China in Hypersonics?

China has pulled ahead of the US in hypersonic research and development. In a 2013 test, the X-51 Waverider vehicle, shown here, reached Mach 5.1 speed in a six-minute flight. The test was thought to have paved the way toward a potential hypersonic missile to be developed by 2020, but the Air Force has not openly tested anything similar since. Courtesy image.

The Air Force and the other services recognize that China has stolen the lead in hypersonics, and now the Pentagon is trying to figure out who should coordinate the various service lab, academic, and industry efforts in this area, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Seve Wilson said.

In an interview with Air Force Magazine, Wilson observed, “When you look at the amount of work China’s done, with the amount of research papers they’re publishing, the amount of infrastructure they’ve put in [as well as] facilities, the amount of test that they’re doing, you could make an argument that they’re really leaning forward in hypersonics.”

He asserted that “We used to be the world’s leader in it; we were doing hypersonics before anybody,” going back to ramjet and scramjet research and the X-15 rocketplane program in the 1960s. However, “we haven’t been doing it at the speed and scale” with which it was previously pursued. Now, he said, the services “understand what’s going on and they are all investing money to revitalize that capability.” As the vice chief, Wilson sits on the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, and so has insight into what the various services and defense agencies are working on.

Is any one individual or agency the “belly button” for hypersonics, though, with a mandate to coordinate the effort? “I can’t tell you if there’s any one service in charge of hypersonics,” Wilson said, but “I can tell you we’re all doing things—us, DARPA, SCO [the Strategic Capabilities Office],” and “the discussion with the department is, should there be … somebody in charge of that?”

Noting that advances are being made by the services, industry, and academia, Wilson said the challenge for hypersonics—as well as “AI [artificial intelligence], machine learning, … quantum or block chain [computing]—is “how do we bring all those together to work on big, hard, gnarly problems.”

One likely candidate to lead hypersonics: the new Pentagon Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Technology, who will fall under the new Undersecretary for Research and Engineering. But that position “doesn’t exist yet,” Wilson pointed out.

“I’ll just tell you that we’re looking at … our design efforts as we move forward, and [at] how do we design across an enterprise; an organizational design. And we’re spending some brainpower thinking about that,” said Wilson.

The Air Force/Boeing X-51 Waverider vehicle, in a 2013 test, achieved Mach 5.1 during a six-minute flight, and this event was hailed as paving the way for a potential hypersonic missile around 2020, but USAF has not openly tested anything comparable since. Pentagon sources say hypersonics is slated to get a big funding boost in the Fiscal 2019 budget, expected to be forwarded to Capitol Hill Feb. 5.