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Pentagon Nears Finding on Hypersonic Glider Test Failure

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

(Aug. 19) -The Hypersonic Test Vehicle-2, shown in an illustration. The Defense Department could soon draw conclusions about why an HTV-2 flight test in April resulted in a crash, a senior-level official said (U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency/Aviation Week). (Aug. 19) -The Hypersonic Test Vehicle-2, shown in an illustration. The Defense Department could soon draw conclusions about why an HTV-2 flight test in April resulted in a crash, a senior-level official said (U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency/Aviation Week).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Defense Department is close to determining what caused a hypersonic glide vehicle to fail during an April flight test, a senior official said today (see GSN, March 15).

The event was expected to demonstrate technology usable in a conventional "prompt global strike" weapon capable of striking targets anywhere around the world within one hour.

A Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency review board "is in the last phases of its internal review" of the Hypersonic Test Vehicle-2's maiden flight test and should report out in "the next month or so," Zachary Lemnios said at a breakfast session with reporters this morning. "When that review board finishes their work, we’ll come out with a statement on exactly what’s happened."

Using the HTV-2 technology, a joint DARPA-Air Force effort is aimed at developing a Conventional Strike Missile capable of achieving Mach 20 speeds.

Lemnios, who directs the Pentagon's Defense Research and Engineering office, said a significant amount of data was gathered during the April 22 test. Launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., the test vehicle reportedly achieved successful separation from its Minotaur 4 boosters high in the atmosphere.

However, nine minutes into the flight, the dart-shaped glider lost communication and never made it to its notional target, which had been set in the Pacific Ocean north of Kwajalein Atoll.

Initial DARPA analysis was that the loss of the vehicle might have resulted from its self-destruct apparatus, which could automatically terminate flight if it sensed any divergence from its programmed route, according to one defense consultant. Alternatively, any number of other operating failures might have led to the crash, according to officials.

The Hypersonic Test Vehicle-2 reportedly lacks a device that might have signaled activation of the self-destruct sequence, somewhat complicating the DARPA analysis.

"There does not appear to be a mechanism in there that would tell you whether it was self-destruction or not," said the consultant, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing failure review.

Eric Mazzacone, a DARPA spokesman, said the engineering-review board has been meeting since the end of May to scour "millions" of data points gathered during the flight test.

“Following senior-level [Pentagon] review of those findings, key observations may be released, subject to classification and export-control restrictions," he told Global Security Newswire today.

U.S. Strategic Command chief Gen. Kevin Chilton has said he wants to see the first Conventional Strike Missile fielded at Vandenberg by 2015 (see GSN, July 1, 2009). It would remain on alert, backed up by two spares, for potentially hitting a time-urgent target such as top terrorist leaders spotted at a hideout or a North Korean nuclear missile being readied for launch, according to defense officials.

The HTV-2 has a carbon-fiber aero shell that allows it thermal protection as the delta-wing vehicle glides on the edge of space towards its target. During the test, the vehicle was expected to fly roughly 5,700 kilometers in less than half an hour.

Lemnios would not say today whether the April disappointment is expected to delay the prompt-strike missile's deployment or to hike flight-test costs, which were projected last spring to reach or even surpass $500 million. He also declined to speculate whether plans for the next such HTV-2 flight, slated for March 2011, would be affected.

"I'm not going to make that determination until I see exactly what came out of the review board," said Lemnios, who is responsible for overseeing DARPA efforts.

Pentagon budget officials -- assembling their request for fiscal 2012 funding -- recently examined the possibility of splitting off the futuristic HTV-2 technology development effort from the Air Force-led Conventional Strike Missile program, according to defense sources. The White House is expected to submit the new budget to Congress next February.

If implemented, the idea would have been to allow the Air Force-led missile program to be fielded more quickly by pairing it with a less futuristic payload-delivery vehicle, available in the nearer term.

However, defense officials opted to defer a decision on the matter until after next year's flight test, these sources said.

Though Lemnios would not discuss program or budget specifics, he did describe the general thinking behind the HTV-2 effort.

"The risk that we put into those programs -- the risk level that we're willing to put into those investments -- is enormously high," he told reporters at the Defense Writers Group event. "The impact is also high."

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