The Pentagon’s Amazing Failure

You'd be hard-pressed to know Thursday's $120 million test-firing of the Pentagon's Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) was a bust from the press release issued in its wake by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The quest for better things is a human yearning, even if they're destructive in their purpose. One of the neatest things about covering military technology is following the ups (the Internet and GPS) and downs (putting land-based missiles on railcars, for example, or lasers aboard 747s) of American ingenuity.

Thursday, in a tactical sense, was one of the downers.

Bottom line: they shot the aircraft into the sky atop a rocket, hoping to watch it zip back into the atmosphere at 20 times the speed of sound. Why? To help develop a so-called Prompt Global Strike capability - meaning the ability to attack a target pretty much anywhere in the world, quickly.

First, check out the headline:

DARPA HYPERSONIC VEHICLE ADVANCES TECHNICAL KNOWLEDGE

…true enough - when something doesn't work, it means you have to try something different next time.

Then there's what editors call the sub-head:

HTV-2 collects unique data during several phases of second flight

…also true - but kind of misses the point.

Finally, the press release itself:

Today, DARPA attempted to fly the fastest aircraft ever built.

OK. You've been telling us this test was going to happen for weeks, and, in fact, had to scrap Wednesday's test because of poor weather.

The Agency’s Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) is designed to fly anywhere in the world in less than 60 minutes.

We knew that, too.

This capability requires an aircraft that can fly at 13,000 mph, while experiencing temperatures in excess of 3500F.

Cool! (Or is it hot?) But no news there, either.

The second test flight began with launch at 0745 Pacific Time.

News at last!

The Minotaur IV vehicle successfully inserted the aircraft into the desired trajectory.

Fantastic!

Separation of the vehicle was confirmed by rocket cam and the aircraft transitioned to Mach 20 aerodynamic flight.

Great! So the mission was a success!

This transition represents a critical knowledge and control point in maneuvering atmospheric hypersonic flight.

Even more success!

More than nine minutes of data was collected before an anomaly caused loss of signal.

Oops. (Editors call this burying the lede.) The flight was to have lasted about 30 minutes. DARPA's Twitter feed was ominous: "Range assets have lost telemetry with HTV-2. More to follow," one said. Finally, another tweet: "Downrange assets did not reacquire tracking or telemetry. HTV-2 has an autonomous flight termination capability."

Initial indications are that the aircraft impacted the Pacific Ocean along the planned flight path.

Well, at least it was flying straight when it failed.

As the DARPA press release concludes:

In the coming weeks, the assembled independent Engineering Review Board will review and analyze the data collected. This data will inform policy, acquisition and operational decisions for future Conventional Prompt Global Strike programs—the goal of which, ultimately, is to have the capability to reach anywhere in the world in less than one hour.

Unfortunately, the challenge has never been hitting the target fast enough. The challenge has been - and will remain - finding the right target to hit in the first place. Maybe this is what separates inventors from the rest of us. They are earnest dreamers, while the rest of us try to separate the gee-whiz from the genuine.

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