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DARPA’s Glide Breaker: The Game-Changer in Countering Hypersonic Threats

Introduction

Hypersonic missiles, capable of traveling at speeds exceeding five times the speed of sound, pose a formidable challenge to global security. These missiles glide along the edge of space, evading detection and striking their targets with unparalleled precision. Hypersonic technology makes existing missile defense systems obsolete, requiring a novel approach to counter these emerging threats.  In the ever-evolving landscape of military technology, staying ahead of the curve is paramount to national security. As Russia and China make significant strides in developing hypersonic weapons, the United States is responding with groundbreaking innovations.

Among these innovations is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Glide Breaker program, a hard-kill interceptor designed to counter the emerging threat of hypersonic missiles. In this article, we’ll delve into the world of hypersonic weapons, the challenges they pose, and how DARPA’s Glide Breaker is set to change the game.

The Hypersonic Challenge

Hypersonic missiles are nothing short of a technological marvel. They reach speeds of Mach 5 or more, approximately 6,125 kilometers per hour, as they maneuver through the atmosphere. These missiles are designed to be stealthy, evading early warning systems and radar detection, making them a highly elusive and destructive threat.

The global emergence of hypersonic technology has led to significant investments, notably by countries like Russia, China, and the US. This heightened interest is partially driven by the conflict in Ukraine, where hypersonic missiles, like the ‘Kinzhal,’ were reported to be deployed for the first time. These developments have spurred concern about the race to develop such weaponry, which could potentially outpace current defense capabilities. Despite the rapid progress in hypersonic technology, it remains in the early stages.

As they glide and maneuver at breakneck speeds, the challenge of countering them becomes increasingly complex. Traditional defenses are ill-equipped to counter such rapid and unpredictable threats, making it imperative for the United States to explore innovative solutions.

DARPA’s Glide Breaker Program

DARPA’s Glide Breaker program was initiated to tackle the emerging threat of hypersonic weapons.  The program’s primary objective is to develop an advanced interceptor capable of engaging maneuvering hypersonic threats in the upper atmosphere. By using a hard-kill interception approach, Glide Breaker seeks to physically collide with and destroy incoming hypersonic missiles.

“The objective of the Glide Breaker program is to further the capability of the United States to defend against supersonic and the entire class of hypersonic threats,” DARPA said in an announcement for the July 2018 “Proposers Day.” “Of particular interest are component technologies that radically reduce risk for development and integration of an operational, hard-kill system.”

But what makes Glide Breaker so unique and promising?

1. Hard-Kill Interception

Unlike traditional missile defense systems, which focus on intercepting targets with kinetic energy, Glide Breaker uses a hard-kill approach. This means it aims to physically collide with and destroy incoming hypersonic missiles, leaving no room for error. The accuracy and precision required for such interceptions are staggering, and DARPA is up to the task.

2. Advanced Sensors and Tracking

To hit a hypersonic missile, you need to see it coming. Glide Breaker boasts state-of-the-art sensors and tracking systems that can identify and lock onto incoming threats. This cutting-edge technology enhances its ability to make split-second decisions and respond to threats with unprecedented accuracy.

3. Unmatched Maneuverability

Glide Breaker isn’t just fast; it’s highly maneuverable. Its agility allows it to respond to the most complex and unpredictable flight paths that hypersonic missiles are known for. This capability ensures that it remains effective against the ever-evolving nature of these threats.

4. Multiple Layers of Defense

DARPA’s Glide Breaker is part of a broader strategy that combines different layers of defense. By working in conjunction with other missile defense systems, it can create a formidable defense network, safeguarding the nation from hypersonic threats.

Creating Uncertainty for Adversaries

One of the core objectives of Glide Breaker is deterrence.By reducing an adversary’s projected probability of mission success and effective raid size, the program aims to create significant uncertainty. “A key figure of merit is deterrence: the ability to create large uncertainty for the adversary’s projected probability of mission success and effective raid size,” DARPA said in its Proposers Day notice.

Challenges 

While Glide Breaker shows immense promise, the path to success is not without its hurdles. Developing an interceptor system of this magnitude requires overcoming technological, logistical, and financial challenges. Furthermore, hypersonic weapons continue to evolve, meaning that Glide Breaker must adapt and stay ahead of the curve

Progress of the Program

The Glide Breaker program, launched in 2018, is now entering its Phase 2. During Phase 1, several prototypes of the divert and attitude control system (DACS) were designed and tested, demonstrating the feasibility of the program. However, Phase 2 is expected to address additional complexities.

Prominent Contributors to Phase 1

Phase 1 of the Glide Breaker program witnessed active participation from leading defense technology companies. Notably, Northrop Grumman, which was awarded a contract valued at $13 million in January 2020, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, which secured a $12 million contract in February 2020, played a significant role in advancing the program’s objectives.

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Crucial Role

Aerojet Rocketdyne, in particular, holds a vital position in the development of propulsion technology for the Glide Breaker hypersonic defense interceptor program. The company was awarded a contract in February 2020, with a total value of up to USD19.6 million, to spearhead the research, development, test, and evaluation of propulsion technology for the program’s base period. This pivotal work is anticipated to conclude by February 2021.

Diverse Expertise in Propulsion Systems

Aerojet Rocketdyne is renowned for its expertise in both solid-fueled and air-breathing propulsion systems designed for hypersonic flight. Their track record includes the successful delivery of these propulsion systems for the joint US Air Force-DARPA-NASA X-51A WaveRider program. This program marked a significant milestone, achieving the first practical hypersonic flight of a hydrocarbon-fueled and -cooled scramjet-powered vehicle in May 2010. Additionally, it accomplished the longest duration powered hypersonic flight in May 2013.

Leading the Way in Hypersonic Initiatives

More recently, Aerojet Rocketdyne continued to excel in the field of hypersonics by completing a series of subscale propulsion-system test firings for DARPA’s Operational Fires (OpFires) program. This joint initiative between DARPA and the US Army focuses on the development and demonstration of a novel ground-launched system. This system is specifically engineered to facilitate the penetration of modern enemy air defenses by hypersonic boost glide weapons. Furthermore, it enables the rapid and precise engagement of critical time-sensitive targets from a highly mobile launch platform.

Northrop Grumman’s Contribution

Northrop Grumman, another key participant in Phase 1, was awarded a substantial contract worth $13 million in January 2020. This contract was designated for research, development, and demonstration activities critical for enabling an advanced interceptor. Such an interceptor holds the capability to engage maneuvering hypersonic threats in the upper atmosphere. Northrop Grumman’s commitment to these research and development efforts significantly contributed to the program’s progress.

SPARC Research Ignites Advanced Propulsion for Hypersonic Interceptor Weapon

SPARC Research, a cutting-edge player in the realm of aerospace technology, has secured a contract aimed at crafting the propulsion system for a future hypersonic interceptor weapon. This contract was awarded by Draper Laboratory, a prominent US not-for-profit research and development organization. In addition to propulsion design, SPARC will lend its expertise in delivering essential analysis support for this formidable weapon.

The project’s foundation rests on the application of advanced air-breathing propulsion technologies. These innovations are poised to extend the flight capabilities of hypersonic weapons to unprecedented speeds that were previously considered unattainable. To meet this formidable challenge, SPARC Research is leveraging its extensive in-house experience and a powerful suite of analysis tools.

Elevating Speed and Range Through Air-Breathing Technology

At the core of this system lies an air-breathing engine, a technological marvel that ignites stored missile fuel by drawing upon atmospheric air, eliminating the need for conventional propellant ingredients carried by traditional rockets. This revolutionary approach significantly enhances both the speed and range of the hypersonic weapon. Executing this requires profound knowledge of the unique air properties entering the engine, as well as the capability to model fuel combustion at speeds surpassing the sound barrier, as encountered in supersonic combustion ramjet (SCRAMJET) engines.

Modernizing Propulsion Design for Advanced Hypersonic Flight

SPARC Research’s commitment extends beyond mere concepts; the company is vigorously engaged in advancing rocket and air-breathing technology development. This includes undertaking preliminary design work and prototype demonstrations. In an exciting collaborative endeavor, SPARC Research joined forces with ANSYS and F1 Computer Solutions in August to modernize and adapt missile propulsion designs for the future.

This remarkable venture by SPARC Research exemplifies a leap forward in hypersonic weapon technology, underscoring the commitment to break barriers in speed, range, and performance. In the ever-evolving landscape of advanced aerospace, innovations like these are vital to secure a nation’s defense against emerging threats.

Phase 1 Achievements in the Glide Breaker Program

It’s worth noting that the Glide Breaker program’s Phase 1 has yielded impressive results. Among the accomplishments are the design and fabrication of two Divert Attitude Control System (DACS) prototypes, each capable of meeting the desired performance objectives. This includes dynamic component tests and static hot-fire demonstrations of the integrated DACS prototypes. Notably, participation in Phase 1 is not a prerequisite for entry into Phase 2, showcasing the program’s dynamic and inclusive nature.

As the pursuit of advanced hypersonic interceptor weapons continues to unfold, the achievements of organizations like SPARC Research are pivotal in propelling defense capabilities to new heights.

Phase 2 of the Glidebreaker program in April 2022

Phase 2 of the Glide Breaker program, initiated in April 2022, aims to address critical aspects that Phase 1 did not cover. It involves studying the complex endoatmospheric effects, specifically controlling the Kinetic Vehicle (KV) in the presence of jet interaction (JI) between the Divert and Attitude Control System (DACS) jets and the hypersonic crossflow. Factors such as outer mold line geometry, jet placement, jet geometry, jet thrust, and chemical reactions due to unburned propellants in the crossflow all influence JI. The Advanced Interceptor Technology (AIT) program in the 1990s collected valuable data in this domain.

Glide Breaker Phase 2 seeks to develop knowledge to enable a DACS-propelled KV to intercept hypersonic threats during the glide phase, taking JI effects into account. Success in Phase 2 will provide a foundation for a future operational interceptor program.

Program Structure

Phase 2 performer(s) shall execute wind tunnel and flight testing of a Demonstration System (DS) payload to characterize and quantify the effect of JI on a DACS-propelled kill vehicle. The primary deliverable for Phase 2 is a data set from the wind tunnel and flight tests that enables validation of models and informs future design activities

DARPA is soliciting innovative proposals for wind tunnel and flight testing to quantify the aerodynamic JI effects arising from DACS plumes and hypersonic air flows around an interceptor kill vehicle. The ultimate goal is to enhance the US’s capability to counter emerging hypersonic threats. Phase 1 focused on DACS development, whereas Phase 2 will concentrate on understanding jet interactions to design propulsion control systems for future operational glide-phase interceptor kill vehicles.

Demonstration System

The Demonstration System (DS) is a critical component of Phase 2, aiming to achieve specific test objectives. DARPA envisions the DS incorporating a multi-stage sounding rocket or cost-effective booster system, which will elevate the payload to relevant flight test conditions that align with the proposed Operational System (OS) concept. This flight testing will provide data that validates jet interaction (JI) models and informs future design activities for DACS-propelled Kinetic Vehicles (KVs). The DS should align test conditions, such as altitude and Mach, with the OS design concept and include various aspects like divert thruster locations, thrust levels, propellant chemistry, and single and orthogonal thruster operations.

For data collection, the payload should be instrumented adequately to capture external aerodynamic data during flight. This includes measurements of temperature, heat flux, pressure on the outer mold line, and forces and moments resulting from jet interactions. Proposals should outline plans for data collection, communication architecture, bandwidth assessments, live-streaming during the flight, and storage and forwarding strategies for data with bandwidth constraints.

Furthermore, performers should discuss whether they intend to recover the payload and detail how the trajectory supports recovery, along with design features facilitating recovery. The proposals should also incorporate plans for software and hardware-in-the-loop testing before flight testing. System-specific test equipment required for integration, verification, and flight testing of the DS should be outlined, along with a plan to meet range safety requirements for launch.

Together, Phases 1 and 2 are expected to bridge technology gaps and contribute to the development of a robust defense against hypersonic threats, as stated by Major Nathan Greiner, program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office.

Operational System

The proposed OS concept should be a multi-stage VLS-launched system with a DACS-propelled KV. Proposals should detail the entire OS concept. In particular, this should include top-level specifications for each stage of the system and provide a detailed description of the KV concept. Additionally, proposals should justify the sufficiency of the concept to intercept hypersonic threats in glide phase. At a minimum, this should include modeling and simulation of the OS KV from the expected release conditions to intercept of realistic threat trajectories. DARPA expects this analysis will leverage classified work that has previously been completed for other Government customers.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected Boeing on 11 September 2023, under its Glide Breaker programme, to develop and test technologies for a hypersonic interceptor prototype.

Under the Glide Breaker initiative, Boeing will work on developing technologies for hypersonic interceptors capable of countering threats traveling at least Mach 5 during the “glide phase” in the upper atmosphere. This phase of the program focuses on understanding factors like hypersonic airflow and jet thrusters in order to enhance system performance in a challenging environment.

Boeing’s contract with DARPA will fund simulations that will evaluate Glide Breaker designs using wind tunnel studies and what is known as computational fluid dynamics, computerized models of how a fluid  —  in this case air  —  interacts with an object such as a missile interceptor.

In addition, Boeing will conduct testing to evaluate how Glide Breaker’s jet thrusters affect its overall aerodynamic performance as they fire to help the vehicle maneuver into position to intercept and defeat hypersonic weapons in flight.

Because Glide Breaker is designed to intercept rapidly emerging technologies unlike the weapons systems of the past, Boeing will have to use simulations that model the interactions that take place between the air and the interceptor at extreme speeds and altitudes.

The Future of Hypersonic Defense

As the program advances, its focus extends to wind tunnel and flight testing of jet interaction effects. These tests are essential to quantify and understand the complex aerodynamic interactions between the divert and attitude control system plumes and hypersonic airflows around the interceptor kill vehicle. This knowledge will enable the development of propulsion control systems for future operational glide-phase interceptor kill vehicles.

Closing Thoughts

DARPA’s Glide Breaker program is a testament to American ingenuity and commitment to national security. With hypersonic weapons emerging as a pivotal factor in modern warfare, staying ahead of the curve is paramount. While challenges persist and testing continues, Glide Breaker represents a significant step in countering these emerging threats. As the program progresses into Phase 2, the ability to combat hypersonic missiles and safeguard national security takes a giant leap forward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References and Resources also include:

https://www.army-technology.com/news/sparc-hypersonic-interceptor-weapon/

http://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/23398/darpa-starts-work-on-glide-breaker-hypersonic-weapons-defense-project

About Rajesh Uppal

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