The Ministry of Defence is to take out a £10 million contract to develop hypersonic propulsion systems that could potentially see the UK’s current fighters travel at twice their top speeds.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, the UK’s Chief of the Air Staff, said he was “delighted” to announce the MoD is now working with Rolls-Royce, Reaction Engines and BAE Systems in developing hypersonic propulsion systems to increase aircraft performance and capability.

Hypersonic means being able to travel at five times the speed of sound – Mach 5 – covering vast distances in minutes.

Commercial airliners fly sub-sonically, just below Mach 1, whereas modern fighter jets can travel supersonically at Mach 2 or Mach 3.

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However, there has been mounting concern that China and Russia are leading the way in the development of new hypersonic military technology, threatening to leave the US and its allies behind.

Speaking at the 2019 Air and Space Power conference in central London, he said: “These will be designed and tested over the next two years, paving the way for the UK to become a centre of excellence in this technology and contribute to meeting future UK defence needs.”

It is hoped that, at high altitude and depending on various factors such as payload, speeds of up to Mach 5 could be reached.

Sir Stephen would not give a specific time for when the technology could be introduced, but later told reporters “this is not an idea, (as) a lot of this technology now exists. What we are doing is providing additional investment and additional focus for that project so that we can deliver a military utility out of it”.

He said: “I want this technology, like all technologies, exploited as rapidly as possible. I think in the past, in our acquisition systems, we have been too slow.

“We have tested everything as if it is a very big project with a very long timeline, and we have just accepted that things take a long time – well, our adversaries do not see it that way.

“They are able to move forward in generations of capability much more quickly.

“If we are going to maintain our competitive advantage, we are going to have to move faster.”

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He said there was a balance to be struck between “going fast and the risk levels associated with that”.

Hypersonic, or high-tech, air systems are seen as a key tool in the world of defence and security systems.

The extra speed developed could potentially open up the chances of cutting times to reach a target, improving penetration in a contested environment and also the ability to access previously unreachable areas.

The announcement comes as the race for hypersonic weapons is heating up, with Russia and China being among the nation’s who are believed to be trying to create these incredibly fast-moving devices.

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Sir Stephen said the UK has “noted very carefully what the Russians are doing”.

He told reporters: “The essence of conflict these days is that targets are going to be relatively fleeting, and when the opportunity arises you need to engage quickly.

“Over the last three decades, we have enjoyed unparalleled advantage in air and space to allow us to do operations in Iraq or wherever it is, our potential adversaries have spotted this.

“We now have increasingly sophisticated air defence systems and their goal is to deny us access to their air space.

“One way to get around that increasingly sophisticated air defence system is speed – to go through it at hypersonic speed and deny them the opportunity to engage.”

In a joint statement, Rolls-Royce, Reaction Engines and BAE Systems said that, by bringing their aerospace innovation, capability of “critical high Mach propulsion technology elements will be developed over the next two years”.