The US Air Force has ordered the development of a hypersonic cruise missile, which it hopes will travel at Mach 5 - five times the speed of sound - through air defences and keep fighter jet pilots out of harm’s way.
Defence giant Lockheed Martin has been tasked with producing the weapon as part of a prototype programme led by the US Department of Defence.
“The Air Force is using prototyping to explore the art-of-the-possible and to advance these technologies to a capability as quickly as possible”, a spokeswoman said.
If the "hypersonic conventional strike weapon” is successful Lockhead Martin could earn up to $928m (£653m).
The announcement comes shortly after the head of US Strategic Command, General John Hytens, warned American senators that the country currently lacked “any defence” against hypersonic missiles.
“Both Russia and China are aggressively pursuing hypersonic capabilities. We’ve watched them test those capabilities,” he said last month.
The hearing was held days after Vladimir Putin gave details about Russia’s tests of its own hypersonic prototype, the Kinzhal missile.
Calling it an “ideal weapon”, the Russian president said their speed “makes it invulnerable to current missile and air defence systems since interceptor missiles are, simply put, not fast enough”.
No end date has been set for the new contract, which will see Lockheed Martin undertake “the design, development, engineering, systems integration, test, logistics planning, and aircraft integration support of all the elements of a hypersonic, conventional, air-launched, stand-off weapon” at its base in Alabama.
Stand-off weapons, like those used by American pilots in last week's air strikes on suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria, are launched from outside the range of defensive missile batteries.
Hypersonic missiles are designed to evade those defences by flying at five times the speed of sound, or faster.
Earlier this week, the Pentagon’s research and development chief, Michael Griffin, told members of Congress this week that current defences mean the US will “not see these things coming”, leaving little time for response.
“Today the most significant advance by our adversaries has been the Chinese development of what is now today a pretty mature system for conventional prompt strike at multi-thousand-kilometre ranges,” he said.
He has previously called hypersonic technology, the Defence Department’s “first priority".
The US has previously tested the X-51 Waverider, a hypersonic aircraft developed by Boeing that is capable of flying at Mach 5. It is launched from a B-52 Stratofortress bomber while airborne, and powered by a rocket booster and ramjet engine.
Lockheed’s new hypersonic project is one of two currently being pursued by the Air Force, a spokeswoman said.
The second is the Tactical Boost Glide system, according to US media reports. A boost glide craft is accelerated to high speed by a rocket before gliding unpowered to its destination, the US military said.
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