|Bigger, faster and more explosive|
than any other country's missiles:
US quest for global force reach
Project FALCON (Force Application and Launch from Continental United States) may revolutionise modern warfare and deeply affect US foreign policy.
"This capability would free the US military from reliance on forward basing to enable it to react promptly and decisively to destabilizing and threatening actions by hostile countries and terrorist organizations," said the Defence Advanced Research
Projects Agency as it began soliciting bids for the programme.
The Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle, as the concept drone is called, should be able to take off from any US air base, fly 14,400 km in under 120 minutes and deliver an assortment of smart bombs and cruise missiles weighing up to 5.4 tonnes to a chosen target, according to defence officials.
The system may be ready for deployment by 2025.
In the meantime, the Pentagon plans to develop a glider capable of delivering 450 kilograms of munitions to a distance of 4,800 kilometres at hypersonic speeds.
The glider, which the military wants in its arsenal by about 2010, will be propelled to its target by a low-cost launch vehicle that should also be able to deliver satellites into orbit, the agency added.
"The current and future international political environment severely constrains this country's ability to conduct long-range strike missions on high-value, time critical targets from outside" the continental United States, the Pentagon research agency concluded.
The US quest for hypersonic technology goes back to the long-forgotten Copper Canyon project launched by President Ronald Reagan in 1982.
It called for building an aerospace plane that would fly at 25 times the speed of sound, covering the distance between Washington and Tokyo in under two hours by flying part of the trip in low orbit.
The aircraft was supposed to use a so-called air-breathing ramjet engine, where thrust is created by water vapour ejected as a result of burning a mix of liquid hydrogen and compressed hot air sucked in from outside into the combustion chamber.
Technical problems and cost overruns eventually forced the US government to put the ambitious plan to the back burner.
But recent advances in propulsion technology and the availability of new materials have prompted the United States to have another look at the old designs, the sources said.
"I think that their conclusion from that exercise was that a Mach 12 sub-orbital air-breather might be within the realm of possibility," John Pike, director of Global Security, a Washington area think tank, told AFP.
The Pentagon gave a hint of its new project on March 31, when Deputy Undersecretary of Defence Michael Wynne asked the Senate Subcommittee on Emerging Threats for a 150-million-dollar increase in funding for hypersonic strike capability.
"Technology has progressed to the point where we believe that demonstrations of Mach 12 by 2012 are within reach," Wynne told lawmakers.