Australia’s commitment to developing and defending against missiles faster than the speed of the sound is at the fore following the opening of a $14 million state-of-the-art Hypersonics Research Precinct at Eagle Farm in Brisbane last week.

Staffed by 60 people, the purpose-built facility was unveiled by the Minister for Defence Peter Dutton to advance the understanding and use of hypersonic technology through flight test vehicles.

It represents one element of the $3bn capability investment across Defence innovation, science, and technology over the next decade.

“It’s a complex technological challenge to build vehicles capable of flying at five times the speed of sound, that skim the stratosphere to target any location on the planet,” Minister Dutton said.

“The technology that is developed here will help us to better defend against the malign use of this technology and give us the ability to strike any potential adversaries from a distance and deter aggression against Australia’s national interests.

“It enables Defence researchers to develop and characterise sovereign hypersonic technologies and generate ‘true’ hypersonic flight conditions at large scale in a classified laboratory.”

 

What’s the big deal about hypersonic weapons?

In aerodynamics, a hypersonic speed is one that exceeds five times the speed of sound – or about 6,200km per hour, starting at speeds of Mach 5 and above.

The shape of these hypersonic weapons allows them to manoeuvre toward a target or away from defences without being detected by radar, posing a challenge to missile defence systems.

Back in December 2020, Australia and the United States signed a collaborative agreement to develop and test hypersonic cruise missile prototypes under the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment (SCIFIRE).

The program draws on 15 years of research and collaboration between Australia and the United States on hypersonic scramjets, rocket motors, sensors, and advanced manufacturing materials, including actual launches and flight trials conducted under the previous Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation (HIFIRE) program.

 

Who’s leading the race?

Senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Dr Malcolm Davis said while the opening of the research facility is a great step forward, the challenge now will be to deploy the capability at a high technological readiness level.

“From a broader perspective, China and Russia are currently ahead in hypersonsics,” he said.

“The US and its allies, including Australia, are behind in many areas – we have a lot of expertise and skills in the pure scientific aspect of research and development, but where we are falling behind is in the application.

“We spend a lot of time doing science in the lab but then we don’t turn that science into actual capability whereas the Russians and Chinese seem to move more swiftly to deploy hypersonic weapons.”

Over the weekend, CNN reported the Pentagon, too, is looking to advance hypersonic weapon development by hosting a “high-level” meeting this coming week.

Speaking at the Halifax International Security Forum, US Space Force General David Thompson said the United States has “a lot of catching up to do very quickly”, after recent hypersonic weapons tests by China and Russia surprised US national security officials and indicated the US is falling behind their main geopolitical rivals.

“We’re not as advanced as the Chinese or the Russians in terms of hypersonic programs,” he said.

 

Hypersonic space development

But hypersonic development blends into space as well.

Earlier this month Brisbane-based aerospace engineering start-up Hypersonix Launch Systems announced it was looking to launch a zero CO2 emissions hypersonic spaceplane capable of deploying small satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

The start-up signed a Master Research Agreement (MRCA) with the University of Sydney to research and manufacture the components of the zero emissions spaceplane.

If all goes to plan, the first test flight is set to take off in Q1, 2023 with Hypersonix’s overarching goal being to build and operate a small satellite launch system in Australia for international customers.

“This is really important; if Australia can develop that sort of capability then that would be world-leading,” Davis said.

“The potential use of this hypersonics research park shouldn’t just be for defence applications in terms of missiles, it should also be applied to space access because that’s an area where we could potentially leap-frog ahead of other countries.”

 

ASX defence stocks

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CODE COMPANY SUB-SECTOR
AJX ALEXIUM INTERNATIONAL GROUP MILITARY EQUIPMENT
ASB AUSTRAL SHIPBUILDING
BCT BLUECHIIP LTD MILITARY EQUIPMENT
BIS BISALLOY STEEL GROUP LTD MILITARY EQUIPMENT
BRN BRAINCHIP HOLDINGS MILITARY EQUIPMENT
CDA CODAN LTD MILITARY EQUIPMENT
DRO DRONESHIELD DRONES
ELS ELSIGHT LTD DRONES
EOS ELECTRO OPTIC SYSTEMS SATELLITES/ SPACE
KSS KLEOS SPACE SATELLITES/ SPACE
MOB MOBILICOM LTD MILITARY EQUIPMENT
OEC ORBITAL CORP LTD DRONES
QHL QUICKSTEP HOLDINGS MILITARY EQUIPMENT
TTT TITOMIC LTD MILITARY EQUIPMENT
UUV UUV AQYABOTIX LTD MILITARY EQUIPMENT
XTE XTEK LTD DRONES/ MILITARY EQUIPMENT

 

Xtek (ASX:XTE) is developing a range of defence-related products for its customers including tactical and protective equipment, explosive ordnance disposal robots and X-ray equipment, forensics, logistics, and advanced carbon fibre composites and spacecraft satellite and launcher systems.

The company also sells military drones of varying size and capability to the Australian Defence Force.

Alexium International (ASX:AJX) is a bedding supplier that has developed flame retardant nylon and cotton fabrics for military applications including its Alexiflam brand and Bisalloy Steel Group (ASX:BIS) produces different types of steel including armour plate for Australia’s ballistics, defence, naval, vehicles market and for overseas customers.

Aerospace company Electro Optic Systems (ASX:EOS) is involved with space defence with its systems including laser physics, advanced optics, precision control systems, space domain sensors and communications technologies, and remote operated combat vehicles.

EOS also has a satellite in orbit that uses its laser sensor tech to track space debris and facilitate communications.

Aquabotix (ASX:UUV) is a company in the defence space that provides underwater robotics products with machine-learning capability while Quickstep (ASX:QHL) produces carbon fibre products for the aerospace industry.