The Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle (HCV) is designed to fly at a top speed of almost 6,000mph directly from America to neutralise regimes threatening to use weapons of mass destruction. It would avoid the need to rely on forward airbases in unreliable third countries.
Before the HCV takes to the skies in around 2025, the Pentagon plans to test the technology using the smaller Common Aero Vehicle (CAV), which is expected to be operational by 2010. The CAV, costing £3.5m each, will be launched either from a space-type rocket or from a conventional plane and will match the HCV’s top speed. It will carry up to 1,000lb of smart bombs or missiles and will be able to drop a precision-guided bunker-busting bomb from the edge of space.
The HCV will take off from a conventional runway under its own power and carry up to 12,000lb of bombs. It might act as a “mother ship”, carrying two or more CAVs. The plane could be adapted to carry troops for lightning raids as well.
There is also talk of the HCV being used to launch satellites for both military and commercial use. Because of the high cost and technical difficulties, the military is considering combining with Nasa and the private sector to develop the HCV.
The HCV would take off using a standard jet engine and be boosted into supersonic speeds at about 450mph by a ramjet. This is a smaller version of a third engine, a scramjet, which would then take over at about 3,600mph.
Andrew Brookes, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the Falcon programme could turn out to be too costly at a time when the US was developing anti-ballistic missile defences and the F-22 stealth fighter.