There’s a new arms race brewing, and this one is destined to be very, very fast. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin is calling for the development of a hypersonic long-range bomber to ensure Russia is not “falling behind the Americans.” He doesn’t want some subsonic or even supersonic analog to the American B-2, he says. Russia’s next bomber–slated for delivery by decade’s end–will move faster than Mach 5.
Rogozin’s latest comments follow on the heels of America’s latest test of the X-51 Waverider, a hypersonic experimental scramjet that the deputy PM holds up as an example of what the Russian aerospace and defense sectors should be aspiring to (along with DARPA’s HTV Falcon test vehicle and America’s other hypersonic development programs).
But there’s one key point Rogozin seems to be missing here: the Waverider crashed into the ocean during its most recent test after a control fin broke. Darpa’s Falcon literally flew out of its own heat-protective skin during its last trial. Hypersonic flight is far from a stable reality on this side of the old Iron Curtain. And if Russia is planning on integrating hypersonic technology into the PAK-DA program (that’s the acronym for Russia’s future long-range bomber initiative), it should’ve started working on the technology piece of this long before now.
It should’ve started working on the funding piece as well. Hypersonic scramjets and the like are expensive to build and then–if DARPA and the Air Force are any indication–they are generally crashed. That’s how aerospace engineers learn. It’s also really, really expensive. Aerospace analysts familiar with both the technology and budget situations in Russia reportedly say the PAK-DA will be at best supersonic, and probably subsonic. If Rogozin’s aspirations are relevant to anything it might be a hypersonic missile, and even that is beyond the 2020 horizon.
Still, that this conversation is taking place at all at this level demonstrates the amount of strategic interest in cracking the hypersonic frontier, something the U.S. Pentagon has invested heavily in for years now. Payload delivery systems (we won’t call them missiles, but they’re missiles) moving at speeds upward of Mach 5–the generally agreed-upon definition of “hypersonic”–would be mighty difficult to defend against with conventional countermeasures. Perhaps we’re all lucky that stable hypersonic flight is going to take quite a few more years to figure out.