Russia has been ramping up its tests of its Tsirkon hypersonic missile, a weapon that the United States military currently has no countermeasure against. If defense isn’t an option, then perhaps it is time to go on offensive and that is exactly what the United States Air Force plans to do—and last week announced that it will conduct a flight test of its own air-launched hypersonic missile before the end of the year.
Planned for production next year, the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) would be the first hypersonic missile developed by and employed with the U.S. military. Such capabilities could provide the United States with a stand-off strike opposition to address increased threats from China and Russia.
Will Roper, the Air Force’s top weapons and research official, said during the inaugural Doolittle Leadership Center Forum on Dec. 14 that the test will occur this month, but he added that while the development of a hypersonic weapon is a notable achievement, it is not a full solution to the challenges the U.S. military is facing.
The AGM-183A ARRW completed a captive-carry test earlier this year, and the first planned booster test flight is expected to occur in the coming weeks, while production would begin next year, Air Force Magazine reported.
While such weapons could provide increased capabilities as a stand-off strike platform, Roper added that hypersonic missiles may not be as crucial to addressing the threats from China and Russia.
“As we field the first hypersonic weapon, and I’m excited we’re doing that, it doesn’t undercut this investment our adversaries have, nor take away the principle of safety that I would expect they hold,” Roper said. “The U.S. has exceptional capabilities, especially in stealth aircraft that can penetrate and put weapons where they wish. So do our adversaries believe we don’t have the ability to target them? I would hope not. Hypersonic weapons just then become another way to do it.”
The ARRW is an air-launched boost-glide hypersonic weapon, which allows it to be initially accelerated using a rocket before gliding unpowered to the target at speeds greater than the speed of sound. Along with such speeds, the missiles also have the ability to maneuver with computerized precision, which could make it difficult to counter. Additionally, a hypersonic missile’s speed and force is so significant that it can inflict damage by sheer
“kinetic” impact without even needing explosives.
The Air Force has been conducting ARRWs tests with Cold War-era B-52H Stratofortress bombers. Over the summer, this included a “captive carry” test, which demonstrated the transmission of telemetry and GPS data from the weapon, called the AGM-183A IMV-2 (Instrumented Measurement Vehicle), to ground control stations, solidifying an essential part of the weapons overall launch, guidance and flight trajectory systems.
The Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) is also equipping the B-1B to carry hypersonic weapons. This month, a B-1B Lancer was used to launch an inert Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) from an external pylon underneath the aircraft’s fuselage, following a previous test, during which a B-1B carried an inert JASSM under an external pylon for the first time. The goal of these tests is to determine how the Cold War era B-1B bombers can be best employed to carry hypersonic weapons externally.
Earlier this year Roper also suggested the ARRW could even be carried on the F-15 fighter. While not quite hypersonic, the Air Force is certainly picking up speed on the development and deployment of the ARRW.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.