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University of Arizona works to help close gap in hypersonic arms race

KOLD News 6-6:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Apr. 5, 2022 at 7:28 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - The United States has joined a security alliance to develop hypersonic missiles.

The U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia will not only work to develop those missiles, but find a way to stop them.

This comes as Russia has fired hypersonic missiles at Ukraine.

“Hypersonic weapons are so fast, so maneuverable that modern defenses can’t really stop them,” said Dr. Alex Craig, an assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of Arizona.

“Russia and China especially have been working in this field. Honestly, they are probably ahead of us right now,” Craig said.

Craig leads the university’s Boundary-Layer Stability and Transition Laboratory, which features this hypersonic wind tunnel capable of testing at air speeds of up to Mach 5 - five times the speed of sound or about 3,800 miles per hour.

Wind tunnels like the one housed at the University of Arizona, help researchers study the effects of hypersonic speeds.

Craig said after the Cold War, the United States started decommissioning wind tunnels and other ground testing infrastructure while others like China, kept building.

“So now they have a certain level of capacity that we don’t anymore and that makes it hard to catch up,’ Craig said.

Craig said weapons that travel at hypersonic speeds are nothing new.

For example, ballistic missiles can travel at Mach 5, but they fly at a more predictable arc.

“What’s new in this sort of latest batch of systems that are being developed is the ability for those to maneuver on the way to their target. So it is much harder to predict and much harder to stop,” Craig said.

Craig said hypersonic research in the United States has picked up rapidly over the last several years.

Just this year, the university announced the Department of Defense and the State of Arizona gave researchers a total of $10 million to support a suite of upgrades for its hypersonic facilities.

The new trilateral cooperation with the United Kingdom and Australia will also progress hypersonic research as it looks to expand information sharing to deepen cooperation on defense innovation.

Meanwhile, Russia’s combat debut of the hypersonic missile has many, including Craig, asking, “why?”

“Honestly, I was a little bit surprised when the news came out that they used one of these systems,” Craig said. “It could be because Russia is trying to send a message to the west basically saying remember, ‘Hey we have these systems.’ The other one being they are running low on their stocks of long-range precision missiles, and they had to dip into their higher-level capabilities.”

Craig said while the hypersonic missile Russia fired into Ukraine is formidable, he’s confident Russia have more threatening hypersonic weapons in its arsenal.

“They haven’t opened their entire bag of tricks yet. They haven’t unleashed everything they could,” Craig said.

While there is no effective defense against this kind of technology Craig is optimistic that with more funding and research that will change.

“We are going to come with ways to stop this. If our adversaries have that capability we need some way to deter them fro using it and One of the ways you do that is by having a reciprocal capability that you can respond with,” Craig said.

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