The U.S. Air Force has successfully fired off an air-launched hypersonic weapon from a B-52 Stratofortress, marking a breakthrough in ongoing U.S. efforts to keep pace with Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons testing and development.
A U.S. Air Force B-52H Stratofortress successfully released an AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) off the southern California coast on May 14, demonstrating a new ability to attack air and ground targets at high speeds with great precision.
“Following separation from the aircraft, the ARRW's booster ignited and burned for expected duration, achieving hypersonic speeds five times greater than the speed of sound,” an Air Force statement said.
In development for many years, the ARRW brings new dimensions to air attack by enabling high-speed surprise attacks against enemy ships, aircraft, and ground targets.
As a boost-glide weapon, the ARRW skips off the upper boundaries of the Earth’s atmosphere before using its speed of descent to propel itself down onto a target. The Air Force's decision to buy the weapon in 2022 suggests that the weapon is fast reaching new levels of maturity as it progresses toward operational service. This successful firing would seem to indicate that developers have managed to address certain challenges known to be central to achieving successful hypersonic flight.
"The test team made sure we executed this test flawlessly," said Lt. Col. Michael Jungquist, 419th Flight Test Squadron commander and Global Power Bomber Combined Test Force director, said in the Air Force statement. "Our highly-skilled team made history on this first air-launched hypersonic weapon. We're doing everything we can to get this game-changing weapon to the warfighter as soon as possible."
Firing the ARRW might give the B-52 an unprecedented ability to soften up or destroy enemy air defenses, therefore reducing the need to send fighter jets above hostile territory armed with advanced air defenses. In this respect, the ARRW could help perform functions typically thought of as being performed by a stealthy bomber or fifth-generation stealth fighters and help open up an “air corridor” for fighter aircraft to attack without being targeted by air defenses. Air defenses are often targeted by ship or submarine-fired Tomahawk cruise missiles, stealth bombers, or even long-range land-fired missiles, so having such attacks launched from the air at stand-off ranges introduces new airwar options.
Interestingly, the Air Force statement mentions precision, something of great value for a maneuvering, high-speed projectile capable of descending upon and destroying longer-range targets exponentially faster than existing air-fired weapons can. When it comes to hypersonic weapons, the Army, Air Force, and Navy are all involved in various collaborative efforts intended to expedite joint warfare possibilities. One thing of particular relevance might be the Army’s effort to engineer a new class of hypersonic weapons able to hit “moving targets.” This development would be of great significance as it would open up an entirely new sphere of attack possibilities and tactics for Air Force pilots looking to track and destroy different kinds of targets. Senior Army developers explain this as a “tech insertion,” meaning some kind of enhancement, upgrade, or modification to an existing hypersonic weapon is introducing the promise of greatly improved attack functionality.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.