Coming Soon: B-52 Stratofortress Armed with Hypersonic Missiles?
These weapons will let America keep up with Russia and China.
Last week the Russian military successfully test-fired a Tsirkon hypersonic missile, which was fired from the frigate Admiral Goshkov and it hit a target at sea 450 km (roughly 280 miles) away. This is certainly a concern to U.S. military planners as hypersonic weapons have the capability to unleash massive destruction. Able to travel at five times the speed of sound and with the ability to maneuver with computerized precision that could make it difficult to counter, a hypersonic missile’s speed and force is so significant that it can inflict damage by sheer “kinetic” impact without even needing explosives.
However, the United States is developing its own hypersonic missile, the forthcoming AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid-Response Weapon (ARRW), which could fly at speeds between 5,000 and 6,000 miles per hour—roughly between Mach 6.5 and Mach 8. At such speed the ARRW (reportedly pronounced “Arrow”) could hit a target 1,000 miles away in just ten to twelve minutes. The missile is made up of a solid-fuel rocket booster that is topped by an unpowered boost-glide vehicle; and the rocket booster can propel the missile to hypersonic speeds after which the glide vehicle detaches and continues to the target.
Earlier this month Maj. Gen. Andrew Gebara, director of strategic plans, programs and requirements for the Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) disclosed the information about the ARRW in an interview with Air Force Magazine.
Something Old and Something New
What is especially noteworthy about the United States’ first hypersonic weapon is that this twenty-first-century technological marvel will be carried on the United States Air Force bombers that first flew in the early stages of the Cold War. Gebara told Air Force Magazine that the sixty-year-old B-52 bombers are being “reinvigorated” with upgrades that could keep the aging workhorses in the sky for at least another thirty years.
The Air Force has already spent a reported $1.4 billion upgrading the B-52 and could spent an additional $3.8 billion over the next five years. But it could be a lot of bang for the buck.
AFGSC’s improvements to the fleet of seventy-five B-52s—the last actually was built in 1963—will boost the range, power, sensors and notably the bomb-carrying capacity. The B-52s have been steadily undergoing these updates to the radar and engines, but the changes are so significant that the aircraft could be redesignated from B-52H to either B-52H+ or B-52J.
“It is going to … be a very different B-52 than what I flew as a lieutenant,” Gebara said during the interview.
Among the biggest improvements for the bombers will be the ability to carry the new AGM-181 Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) nuclear cruise missile, but also the ARRW.
The first launches of the AGM-183A prototypes are set to take place a year from now in October 2021 TheDrive reported. Defense giant Lockheed Martin first received the contract to develop the ARRW in 2018, and the first captive-carry test of the hypersonic missile platform was conducted on a B-52H at Edwards Air Force Base in California in 2019. While the program has been running behind schedule, the last such test of the missile was carried out this past August.
The Air Force, which intends to buy at least eight prototypes for further testing, has set a goal of reaching operational capability of the ARRW by September 2022.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.