The Air Force’s ARRW hypersonic missile failed to take off during a recent test flight. During the flight, a B-52H Stratofortress took to the skies from Point Mugu Sea Range in southern California, an ARRW missile mated to a wing pylon. The goal of the test was to fire a booster test vehicle for the ARRW missile—which did not happen. Instead of firing, the missile “was not able to complete its launch sequence and was safely retained on the aircraft.” The aircraft then returned to base—Air Force jargon that indicates the missile booster didn’t separate from its under-wing weapon pylon.
It was a disappointing setback for what is one of the Air Force’s most-anticipated new weapons. The ARRW, which stands for Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, is a boost-glide type hypersonic missile that is supposed to reach Mach 20 speeds before it glides to its target. These types of hypersonic missiles depend on a booster rocket to bring them upward and into low-Earth orbit, somewhat akin to intercontinental ballistic missiles. Once the proper altitude is achieved, the missile’s glide vehicle, essentially an aerodynamic triangle, glides toward its target.
Although hypersonic missiles like the ARRW glide unpowered to their target, they do so at incredibly high speeds. Hypersonics are expected to combine blisteringly high speeds with a long range strike capability, but are a complex challenge from an engineering standpoint. After all, surviving reentry into Earth’s atmosphere at hypersonic speeds generates an incredible amount of heat and turbulence, factors that could destroy the glide vehicle.
Some hypersonics including the ARRW are also expected to have highly maneuverable terminal flight phases which would make it incredibly difficult for air defense missiles that travel at much lower speeds to shoot them down. You can read more about the formidable ARRW in this previous National Interest piece.
This failure comes on the heels of comments made recently by an Air Force general in which he questioned why other branches, namely the Army, would pursue their own hypersonic weapons projects over those already in development by the Air Force. The general lauded hypersonic missile efforts by the Air Force, though this most recent failure will no doubt be used as justification for a parallel hypersonic Army project.
Still, the test was not a total loss. “The ARRW program has been pushing boundaries since its inception and taking calculated risks to move this important capability forward. While not launching was disappointing, the recent test provided invaluable information to learn from and continue ahead. This is why we test,” said Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, Armament Directorate Program Executive Officer explained.
Regardless, the Air Force clearly still has some work to do before they field a formidable—and reliable—hypersonic missile.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.