Last week, I posted an article on the Wifcon Forum in which Dr. Mark J. Lewis, the Director of Defense Research and Engineering for Modernization provided some thoughts about defense projects. The article was entitled Risk Aversion Impedes Hypersonics Development. Within the article was a 44- minute video that includes, in part, his discussion of the race for hypersonic weapons systems. I listened to the video and found it interesting. The article itself started with this quote:
Speeding ahead with the development of hypersonic weapons, both offensive and defensive, will require the Defense Department to look back to the 1960s — a time when it was far less risk-averse than it is now . . .
* * * * *
We need to be less risk-averse. And that doesn't mean we seek to maximize risk. But it also means we're not afraid to take risks, or we're not afraid to fail, as long as they're what I term noble failures . . .
I lived through the 1960s and I'm in no hurry to go back there. What did Dr. Lewis mean? In so many words he was saying, being the fallible humans that we are, expect failures as we push the current envelope of technology. It's hard moving forward into something new. He mentioned two types of failures, the first one he called a noble failure. Think about it. We do our homework, test, and something unexpected happens. From that failure, learn from it, and move forward with the program. The second type of failure is one that is caused by a stupid mistake and you don't learn much, if anything, from it. He also noted that since we must expect failures, we must have the resources to test, correct, and move the system forward.
As an example of having available resources for testing, he mentioned the X-15 research vehicle that had 199 test flights in the 1950s and 1960s. The X-15 was dropped from a B-52, its small rocket engine was ignited for a little over a minute so it could reach space. It would then glide to earth and land on its skis. He contrasted that to DoD's X-51 program that had 4 test flights planned from 2010 through 2013. In short, looking back to the 1960s means that you learn from testing if you plan for enough tests. I agree.
I took Dr. Lewis's advice and went back to the 1960s and looked on my own. In truth, I've been looking at the 1960s for some time. Here is an excerpt from Dr. Lewis's article that caught my attention. About hypersonic weapons, he said.
The speed, maneuverability, and trajectories of hypersonic weapons will give whomever masters them first an advantage, Lewis said. A hypersonic weapon traveling at Mach 5, faster than around 3,800 miles per hour, he said, presents challenges to adversaries.
* * * * *
But developing and delivering a hypersonic cruise missile or a hypersonic boost/glide system will take some time, he said. He said he expects the department to be able to deliver whatever systems are determined to be most useful "at scale" sometime around the mid-2020s.
If DoD and Dr. Lewis believe hypersonic weapons are important to develop again and field again, then do it with adequate testing and resources. But what if we already tested such a system in a real operational airplane, in less than 5 years, over 60 years ago. Here is an excerpt from Clarence L "Kelly" Johnson's book, KELLEY, More than My Share of it All. He was writing about the Air Force's YF-12A, first flown in 1963, which is a derivative of the CIA's A-12, first flown in 1962. The YF-12A was being tested to drop missiles from its bomb-bay doors. Now compare the numbers in the quote below to those in Dr. Lewis's above quote.
Launched from the airplane at well above Mach 3 [about 2,100 mph], and accelerating on its own at another Mach 4, the missile was speeding hypersonically at Mach 7 at the peak of its course. We fired at target drones at altitudes ranging from sea level to more than 100,000 feet, and hit targets more than 140 miles away. We proved we could hit targets over ocean or over land.
* * * * *
Our success rate was better than 90 percent hits.
Although the YF-12A was sending hypersonic missiles at targets successfully in 1963, we now are hoping to do it in 2025. That's over 60 years after we first did it. What happened? Well, the YF-12A program was killed by Robert Strange McNamara, then Secretary of Defense, who is infamous for his efforts in Southeast Asia. Accoding to Kelley Johnson, McNamara said:
. . . no need existed for such a high-performance airplane, that our potential enemies did not have anything comparable, and that an airplane couldn't hit a target going that fast anyway.
McNamara was working in the moment and had no vision of the future. Although Congress appropriated money for the YF-12A program for three successive years, McNamara refused to use our technological advantage with hypersonic systems and move forward with it. Before the program was killed, there were 3 YF-12A's built but only one exists today at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Here it is.
Now, let me take you and Dr. Lewis back to the 1960s and design, develop, and field real airplanes and beat his 5-year window. Let's start at the beginning of 1960 when the A-12 contract was signed by Kelly Johnson and the CIA. In April 1962, 2 1/2 years later, the A-12 was on its first flight. The YF-12A was an A-12 derivative that the Air Force and Kelly Johnson converted to an interceptor. It's first flight was in August 1963. The SR-71, another A-12 derivative, built by Kelly Johnson and the Air Force, had its first flight in November 1964--less than 5 years after the award of the A-12 contract. Let's slip back into the mid 1950s for a moment and the U-2. Kelly Johnson built the U-2 in 8 months. You've caught on--Kelly Johnson was an absolute aviation genius and his U-2, A-12, YF-12A, and SR-71 were incredible operational airplanes. The A-12, YF-12A, and SR-71 were all Mach 3.2 airplanes. They didn't reach Mach 3.2 with afterburners for a few minutes. They cruised at that speed for hours. By the way, the U-2 is still flying and Lockheed is still selling it--about 65 years after its first flight.
If Dr. Lewis wants to go back to the 1960s for ideas on how to field real airpalnes quickly, he's going to have to go back and resurrect Kelly Johnson.
Let's take one last brief trip back to the 1960s. How about July 20, 1969 as the United States was landing humans on the Moon. A few years later, that program was ended as a result of budget cuts. After the Moon landing, I went to my Summer job in the factory that I worked at during my college years. I expected to see happy faces and hear loud talk about our country's great achievement. As I approached my workspace on the factory floor, I heard grumbling from the workers. It was depressing, I was ready for Mars and theses guys were still dreaming about P-38s--which, of course, Kelly Johnson helped to build. All I heard from the workers was something like: we did it, let's quit.
I agree with much of what Dr. Lewis says but he stated the obvious. However, more is needed. We built technology to down enemy aircraft with hypersonic missiles in 1963 but that achievement was squandered by a politiical appointee who couldn't see past his green eyeshades when he terminated the YF-12A. Now, nearly 60 years later, we're competing with China and Russia in a race to build hypersonic weapons. Did we take a technology break so the rest of Earth could catch-up?
We landed humans on the moon in 1969, politicians terminated the program to save money, and we are now among several nations hoping to land on the moon--50 years after the United States did it before. Did we take a success break?
If we achieve something truly remarkable and important this year, how do we know our politicians and political appointees will recognize its importance and build on the achievement. Or, will they decide that we did it, let's quit.