Concept art of the DART AE UAV. Photo: University of Southern Queensland

As the US struggles to field its own hypersonic weapons, Hypersonix, a small Australian civilian company, might provide the much-needed hypersonic engine technology to help the US to develop the weapons. 

The Hypersonix scramjet engine was introduced to senior US officials last month and appears to have several advantages over more complex US systems. Notably, the company claims it can 3D-print a hypersonic engine in three weeks.

Hypersonix’s engine can be 3D-printed using special alloys characterized by resistance to corrosion, oxidation, high pressure and high temperature. In addition, more exotic coatings are planned to be used for exposed hypersonic vehicle flight control surfaces, which endure extreme temperatures during hypersonic flight. 

However, Hypersonix managing director David Waterhouse said the necessary high-temperature-resistant composites are not readily available in Australia and there is an urgency to develop and produce them in-country. 

Last month Hypersonix, together with the University of Southern Queensland, LSM Advanced Composites and Romar Engineering, was awarded a A$2.9 million (US$2.2 million) grant from the Australian government to develop the DART CMP airframe, a reusable hypersonic UAV that can travel up to speeds of Mach 12, powered by the SPARTAN hydrogen engine.

The project aims to produce a complete UAV airframe including composite aeroshell and aerodynamic control surfaces, flight avionics and a hydrogen fuel system. 

This January, Hypersonix and US-based firm Kratos signed an agreement to launch the DART AE, a multi-mission, hypersonic vehicle powered by a hydrogen-fueled scramjet engine.

Kratos’ booster system will accelerate the DART AE to Mach 5 for vehicle release. Following ignition of the scramjet, the hypersonic vehicle will fly autonomously along a programmed flight path to a predetermined landing location.

It is designed to operate between Mach 5 and 12, with a publicly disclosable range of 500 kilometers, using a mechanically simpler hydrogen system for engine thrust, giving it variable speed control and a huge range.

The Delta-Velos Orbiter which contains the SPARTAN (ScramJet Powered Accelerator for Reusable Technology AdvaNcement) launching a 3rd stage booster. Credit – Hypersonix

Its scramjet engine takes in atmospheric oxygen, which reduces weight up to 60% compared to rockets. Also, the development of new high-temperature composite materials in the project enables the DART AE to be completely reusable. 

Hypersonix has also finished several hypersonic shock tunnel tests at the University of Southern Queensland and has done extensive modeling on its DART AE hypersonic vehicle, with the first test launch expected next year. 

Hypersonix co-founder Dave Waterhouse said the advantage of this engine design is that it has fixed geometry and employs no moving parts, which are potential points of failure, in contrast to more complex US designs.

He added that since the engine can be turned on and off in flight, the DART AE can effectively “skip off the atmosphere,” in a manner like stones skipping off water. As a result, the system can cover huge distances using only small amounts of fuel. 

While Hypersonix has claimed its technology is for green access to space as it produces no CO2 emissions, the technology obviously has military applications. 

Hypersonix’s technology has the potential to bolster flagging US hypersonic research efforts, which have been marred by a string of test failures and challenges, such as supply chain constraints, acquisition barriers, budget instability and access to test facilities.

Other factors that contribute to US difficulties include poor design, fabrication, management and test planning as well as pre-flight testing deficiencies and a lack of rigorous government oversight.

As a result, the US has yet to field a usable hypersonic weapon, in contrast to its near-peer adversaries China and Russia. Hypersonic weapons have been in service with the Chinese military since 2019, with the DF-17 hypersonic missile being one of the first operational systems fielded.

Russia became the first country to use hypersonic weapons in anger when it used its Kinzhal air-launched hypersonic weapon against a Ukrainian ammunition depot. 

This technology sharing between the US and Australia may be done under the Quad Alliance, adding a practical, concrete aspect to an otherwise dialogue-based framework.

This cooperation in hypersonic weapons development follows a trend of emerging high-tech cooperation between the two countries, most notably with Australia’s plan to operate nuclear submarines which would require leasing a Virginia-class boat from the US for training purposes, and the recent induction into service of the US-designed Loyal Wingman drone to complement its upcoming F-35 fighter jets.