Good news, bad news -- which would you like first?
Actually, let's start with the good news. In December, we learned that U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) is developing a new superfast, hypersonic bomber dubbed SR-72 (or more poetically "Son of Blackbird"). Traveling at heights of 80,000 feet, and speeds of Mach 6 and up, this futuristic warplane will launch missiles nearly as blistering-fast -- Mach 5 or better.
As Lockheed Martin tells it, the combination of a hypersonic SR-72, and its on-board High Speed Strike Weapon (HSSW) will be a true "game-changer" in modern warfare. Once the weapons systems go live in 2030, they'll be capable of striking an enemy at "nearly any location across a continent in less than an hour." What's more, Lockheed isn't even the only company working on such "scramjet" powered missiles. Boeing (NYSE:BA) has one in development, too, the so-called X-51 WaveRider, and like Lockheed's rocket, it travels at Mach 5.
But now here's the bad news:
China's got a hypersonic missile, too. And it's twice as fast as ours.
On Thursday, British newspaper The Guardian reported that China has just become the second country on the globe to conduct test flights of hypersonic missiles. The Chinese version, dubbed "WU-14," fired off on Jan. 9, and according to press reports achieved a speed of Mach 10, putting even the best U.S. hypersonics to shame.
So far, no many people seem eager to talk about China's test. Not the Chinese, who obliquely declined to either confirm or deny that the test took place, referring only to unspecified "planned domestic scientific research and experiments" that "are normal" and "not aimed at any country or target." Not the U.S. military, either, who did confirm that it was aware of the test that China won't comment on, saying only "we're aware of the test of the hypersonic vehicle."
One final bit of good news -- for defense contractors
In fact, it seems the only folks who do want to talk about China's new Mach 10 missile are members of the U.S. Congress -- three in particular, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon among them. Their take on China's missile, though, may be especially instructive: "While round after round of defence cuts have knocked America's technological advantage on its back, the Chinese and other competitor nations push toward military parity with the United States; in some cases, as in this one, they appear to be leaping ahead of us."
Already, Congress has allotted $200 million to the Pentagon researching hypersonics. Could be, that number is going to go up in 2014. As for how much it goes up, though... that probably depends to a great extent on just how successful China's tests are going.