Warning: This is immature. Sue me. But to me, in all the world, there’s nothing sexier (aside from my wife and J-Lo) than a really fast aircraft. Forget rockets, because the guys in them aren’t really driving. The space shuttle? Oh, please. We’re talking about air-breathers–jets–in which the guy in front has his hands on the stick and throttle and his feet on the rudder pedals. For almost four decades, there hasn’t been anything faster than the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, which the unclassified info admitted would fly at least three times the speed of sound–about 2,350 miles per hour.
You had to see the Blackbird in its aerie to appreciate it. Lurking in a hangar, being readied to fly, the Blackbird’s skin leaked fuel all over the tarmac. When the B-Bird flew, the skin grew hot, expanding and sealing the tanks. One of the chief designers of the Blackbird, the late Ben Rich, once told me that when he was ready to deliver the first one to the Air Force, the fly-guys refused: The aircraft was bare, and any paint Ben used to put the USAF symbols on the plane burned off as soon as the aircraft broke Mach 3. Ben drove his people to find the solution. As he was fond of saying, Ben was known around the plant as “FBR,” and the “F” wasn’t for “friendly.” (Ben was the guy who invented stealth aircraft, but that story is for another day.) About $5 million in research later, a new paint was developed, and the Air Force began its long and happy career flying the Blackbird. The fly-guys called it the “Habu,” for the deadly snake it resembled.
By the late 1980s, the Fort Fumble jungle drums said there was a problem. The Habu was a high-maintenance bird (and J-Lo wouldn’t be?) and not long for the world. A lot of people were fretting over what could do what the Blackbird did, and the answer was “nothing.” Launching from the U.K. or Guam, the Blackbirds could provide better reconnaissance photos than any satellite, because those guys had the stick and throttle, and could go anywhere the president pleased. No fighters could catch it, and no surface-to-air missiles could reach high enough to hit it. Congress voted to retire the SR-71, and there was no unclassified evidence of a replacement being built. One Blackbird, which now sits in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum annex near Dulles Airport, set the cross-country speed record on its retirement flight on March 6, 1990. That was the bad news. The good news comes from NASA in the form of the “scramjet” X-43A.
If you want to fly at hypersonic speeds–faster than the Blackbird–you have a problem. The air is moving through the engines so fast, it literally blows the fires out. It’s like trying to keep a match lit in a 3,000-mile-an-hour hurricane. After years of research, the NASA team broke the code with the new “scramjet,” which uses a gaseous hydrogen fuel to propel the aircraft at speeds above Mach 7–over 5,000 miles per hour.
Last week, a small-unmanned version of the X-43 was dropped from a B-52 over the high desert of California. Boosted to about 3,500 miles an hour by a Pegasus rocket, the X-43A then ignited its scramjet and flew. As NASA program manager Joel Sitz said, “It was fun all the way to Mach 7.”
The sheer fun of it conceals the massive strategic value of this technology. We are sinking in a quagmire of analysis and recriminations over the failures of intelligence before and after 9/11. One of the solutions is to recreate and better the capabilities of the SR-71 (i.e., “strategic reconnaissance”) Blackbird. When the manned recon version of the X-43A are built, America will again have the ability to see–anytime, anywhere–anything that’s visible. And with modern sensor packages, that will mean everything that’s visible to science, including–by virtue of ground-penetrating radars and other sensors–what the enemy buries deep underground. The boost to our intel capabilities will be immediate and enormous. And that’s far from all.
American ground, naval, and air forces are highly dependent on satellites for everything from secure communications to global positioning and navigation. Take away GPS, and many of our precision-guided munitions are blinded. We’re left with maps, compasses, and a lot of dumb bombs. Any enemy capable of destroying some of our satellites (which the Chinese will soon be able to do) can deprive us of much of the high tech advantages our forces have. A hypersonic aircraft like an X-43A derivative gives us a weapon platform that can both launch missiles and fire weapons at anything that is about to attack our satellites from near-space, possibly even missiles fired from the ground. An offensive anti-satellite capability is a natural for the X-43A. And there’s still more.
The B-2 stealth bomber is subsonic. It took almost 24 hours for it to fly from stateside bases to Iraq and back. Deploying it closer to any target is a massive undertaking. You have to deploy not only the aircraft, but essentially a mini-manufacturing plant to deal with its composite skin, engines, and avionics. If a hypersonic bomber were based on the same runways–and in places overseas where the Blackbird once dwelt–we can have a bomber force that can reach any target in the world in just a couple of hours.
Let me make this perfectly clear: When a man-sized version of the X-43A is built, I would offer significant parts of my anatomy to be a part of the crew that breaks Mach 7 in an air-breather. No questions asked, take pretty much any parts you’d like, guys, so long as I can walk, talk, and write when you’re done. There’s only one word that can describe the X-43A adequately: “yeeeeeeeeeeeeehaaaaaaaaaaah.”