An unmanned experimental aircraft designed to fly six times the speed of sound broke apart over the Pacific Ocean seconds into a military test flight due to a faulty control fin, the U.S. Air Force said on Wednesday.
The problem with the fin on the craft known as the Waverider or X-51A was identified in a test flight on Tuesday, 16 seconds after a rocket booster on the remotely monitored craft was ignited to propel it forward, the Air Force said in a statement.
Fifteen seconds later, when the X-51A separated from the rocket booster, it lost control due to a “faulty control fin,” the statement said. The 31 seconds of flight fell far short of the military’s goal for the X-51A to fly for five minutes.
The aircraft broke apart immediately and fell into the Pacific Ocean near Point Mugu northwest of Los Angeles, said Daryl Mayer, a spokesman for the 88th Air Base Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
Even if the test had been a success, the aircraft would have crashed at the end of the flight in any case and was not considered retrievable.
While we tend to support testing and research into hypersonic flight, and scramjet technology, we also tend to think the entire “Prompt Global Strike” program is a money suck. All of the initiatives under the program are fraught with technological risk, most have significant political risk, and none are close to being a realistic operational weapon.
The least technologically risky PGS weapon would be a conventional version of the Trident ballistic missile. But the use of any ballistic missile anywhere heightens tensions worldwide. Until impact, no outside observer knows whether the payload is a conventional or nuclear. The possibility of accidentally causing a “launch under attack” nuclear response is great enough that the “rods from God” Trident would likely find itself in a position where it could never be used, simply because the political risks are far too high.
The goal of PGS is to give the US the capability to attack discrete targets anywhere in the world in less than two hours. But that technical capability ignores the political reality that the decision chain in authorizing an attack takes to long to authorize any strike that in most cases, there will be plenty of time to stage more conventional systems into the area. After all, look how long it took to authorize the strike on the Bin Laden compound.