This is part 3 of a 4-part special report on the trilateral agreement known as AUKUS — Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The defense pact between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, known as AUKUS, aims to accelerate development of hypersonic capabilities, a weapon system experts say will be crucial in the event of conflict in the Indo-Pacific.
The AUKUS trilateral agreement is meant to make development of a number of key advanced capabilities easier through technology sharing and collaboration. Since signing the deal in September 2021, the three countries have been conducting an 18-month study period outlining the program’s plan that will wrap up in March.
Months after announcing the agreement, the three AUKUS nations revealed they would also begin joint development on hypersonic and counter-hypersonic technology as part of the defense pact.
Hypersonic missiles are able to fly at speeds of Mach 5 or greater, which is five times the speed of sound. Their speeds, long ranges and mid-flight maneuverability makes them highly effective in evading missile defense systems, said Nate Szyba, program director for the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile at Raytheon Missiles and Defense.
“Hypersonic weapons can accomplish more than conventional systems while performing the same or similar missions,” Szyba said. “And really, they can also be used to complement more traditional weapon systems or legacy platforms.”
Along with the other advanced technologies the three countries will collaborate on — including nuclear-powered submarines, quantum technology and artificial intelligence — hypersonic capabilities will be used to “promote security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region,” an April 2022 White House fact sheet on AUKUS implementation said.
China first deployed its nuclear-capable DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle in 2020 and continues to invest in and advance its inventory of hypersonics, noted the Pentagon’s 2022 report: “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.”
Given that China — which is considered the United States’ most concerning adversary — has made such significant advancements in its hypersonics programs, including that technology in the AUKUS agreement was absolutely essential, said Dr. Mark Lewis, executive director of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute and former acting deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering at the Pentagon.
“Hypersonics, just writ large, are absolutely critical,” Lewis said. “It would have been bizarre not to include hypersonics given all the relationships that we’ve worked up.”
The United States has been actively pursuing its own arsenal of hypersonic weapons for the last two decades. But because of the mission requirements, hypersonics are incredibly difficult to develop, said Andrew Knoedler, program manager for the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept at the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency.
“We’re at high speed, we’re at high altitude and that means we’re hot. So the challenges all sort of revolve around those aspects,” he said. “We have to design a vehicle that’s going to have materials that are going to survive that environment.”
The Pentagon requested $4.7 billion for hypersonics research in its 2023 budget — up from $3.8 billion the department asked for the previous year. Congress appropriated $4.5 billion to hypersonics and related technologies in its 2023 spending bill, which was passed in December.
The Army is on the cusp of fielding its first hypersonic system known as the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon by the end of fiscal year 2023. The Navy is developing its own system called Conventional Prompt Strike. Both services are jointly developing the glide body and missile stack, although the Army’s will be launched from a vehicle and the Navy’s will be fired from a ship, Lewis explained.
At the same time, the Air Force has two hypersonic systems in development — the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon and the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile — that can be fired from bombers and fighter jets, he added.
Those developments are now likely to get a boost from the hypersonic capabilities of Australia and the United Kingdom through the AUKUS agreement.
“Leveraging the capabilities of our friends and partners is absolutely critical for our success. It’s been one of our secrets to success,” Lewis said. “We have no greater partners than Britain and Australia.”
The Australians have a rich history of research in the field of hypersonics and have made significant contributions to their development, he noted.
In 2022, Australia opened a new $9.8 million facility in Brisbane designed for hypersonics research and development. The facility will allow the Australians and their international partners “to develop and characterize sovereign hypersonic technologies and generate ‘true’ hypersonic flight conditions at large scale in a classified laboratory,” then-Australian Minister for Defence Peter Dutton said in a statement.
AUKUS nations will also be able to leverage Australia’s hypersonic flight testing infrastructure, Lewis said. The Royal Australian Air Force operates the Woomera Range Complex in South Australia, a large and highly specialized testing and evaluation center for military and civil aerospace applications.
“We’ve been doing most of our flight testing over the Pacific Ocean. That means when you’re done, whatever you’re testing crashes into the ocean and you don’t get it back,” Lewis said. “Australians have this facility that we can leverage. You launch it, you test it, you fly it, and when you’re done it lands on the desert floor and you can pick it up. That’s a tremendous value.”
Plus, the AUKUS pact won’t be the first time the Australians have collaborated on hypersonic development. Canberra has already been working with the United States in the field due to the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment, also known as SCIFiRE.
The SCIFiRE project is a follow-on effort to a previous U.S.-Australian effort initiated in 2007 called the Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation. The new program, which began in 2020, aims to test and develop hypersonic cruise missile prototypes from industry capable of being carried by fighter aircraft, such as the F/A-18F Super Hornet or F-35A Lightning, according to the Royal Australian Air Force’s website.
In September 2022, the Air Force awarded Raytheon Missiles and Defense a $985 million contract to develop and demonstrate the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile. Raytheon will operationalize the prototype designs that they completed under the SCIFiRE program, the company’s Szyba said.
“The SCIFiRE program continues in parallel with the HACM program, and it’s in continued development in partnership with the Australians,” he said.
While it is not clear whether HACM will continue its development under the AUKUS agreement, that collaboration with the Australians will continue to strengthen as they move forward with the program, Szyba said.
“We welcome agreements like AUKUS,” he said. “Working together, we can speed up our learning and share knowledge, funding, infrastructure and the human resources that we need.”
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom also has expertise in areas that would benefit the AUKUS pact’s hypersonic development, especially in terms of aircraft and propulsion workforce, said Adam Dissel, president of the U.K.-based aerospace company Reaction Engines.
In the past, the United Kingdom has invested heavily in specific enabling technologies for defense platforms that it jointly developed with other nations — such as the F-35 jet fighter, Dissel explained. The same specialized research and development is currently happening in the field of hypersonics, he added.
“The U.K. defense establishment would not view themselves as they’re ever going to build a long-range spy plane flying at Mach 5,” he explained. “So, can they help? Can they help tackle those risks with their investment with their industrial base and then bring something to the party that says they also agree that this is important?’”
Reaction Engines is currently participating in a program alongside Rolls-Royce, the Royal Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office and the United Kingdom’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory called the Hypersonic Air Vehicle Experimental Program, or HVX. The program’s main objective is to develop capabilities for a reusable hypersonic air-breathing vehicle, a Reaction Engines press release said.
Key to that effort is the company’s Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine. A pre-cooling device attached to the front of the engine uses a large heat exchange to power the vehicle and enables it to fly at hypersonic speeds. Reaction Engines also just finished a partnership with the United States’ Air Force Research Laboratory to test how their technology pairs with other engines, Dissel said.
Dissel said that he is hopeful that the AUKUS agreement becomes a real mechanism for collaboration on hypersonics development that will help the three nations catch up to China, which doesn’t have to jump through a lot of the same bureaucratic — but ethically necessary — hoops the United States, United Kingdom and Australia do when developing defense platforms.
“It’s kind of the recognition that this hypersonics stuff is moving so fast and that adversaries are maturing and coming on board so quickly,” he said. “It’s important enough that we wanted to give it a little bit of extra credibility to make sure we’re not getting in our own way.”