Why the U.S. Military Is So Desperate for Hypersonic Missiles

Why the U.S. Military Is So Desperate for Hypersonic Missiles

Last month the Department of Defense (DoD) identified hypersonic weapons as one of the highest priority modernization areas for the United States military, as potential near-peer adversaries including China and Russia develop their own capable systems.

Last month the Department of Defense (DoD) identified hypersonic weapons as one of the highest priority modernization areas for the United States military, as potential near-peer adversaries including China and Russia develop their own capable systems.

At the Air Force Association's virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium, Mike White, principal director for hypersonics in the office of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said that the DoD has developed a hypersonics weapons modernization strategy that would accelerate the development and delivery of transformational warfighting capabilities.

"We will deliver strike capability to the warfighter in the early-mid 2020s and a layered hypersonic defense capability — first terminal and then glide phase — in the mid-late 2020s," White said. "For reusable systems, our goal is to deliver capability in the early to mid-2030s."

Hypersonic Weapons: A Big Need

Over the past twenty-five years, the Air Force Research Laboratory has invested more than $1.7 billion to develop hypersonic technology. The efforts will soon be put to the test.

On March 5, the United States Air Force announced that it is preparing for the first booster test flight (BTF-1) of its AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), which is expected to take place in the next 30 days.

The ARRW test missile was delivered to Edwards Air Force Base, California on March 1, and it has been loaded onto a B-52H Stratofortress. The immediate work has also begun on pre-flight ground tests and checks to obtain certification for the flight to proceed as scheduled.

"The BTF-1 test vehicle is complete and is progressing through ground testing to verify its readiness for flight," said Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, Air Force Program Executive Officer for Weapons via a statement.

"The team has successfully dealt with COVID challenges and resolved technical findings not uncommon in a first-of-a-kind weapon system," added Gen. Collins. "We have minimized schedule delays while maintaining a laser focus on engineering rigor. Our first BTF will happen in the next 30 days, followed by several additional boosters and all-up-round test flights by the end of the year."

The forthcoming AGM-183A ARRW (reportedly pronounced "Arrow") is reported to be capable of reaching speeds between 5,000 and 6,000 miles per hour, or roughly between Mach 6.5 and Mach 8. At such speed the missile could hit a target 1,000 miles away in just ten to twelve minutes. ARRW 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.

The U.S. Air Force has been conducting tests to use the ARRW with a modified B-52 Stratofortress bomber. On Dec. 19, the Air Force successfully conducted a test of an ARRW instrumented measurement vehicle (IMV) at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

The upcoming BTF-1 will be the eighth flight test for the ARRW program, following seven captive carriage flight tests. The ARRW BTF-1 will demonstrate the booster's ability to reach operational speeds and collect other important data.

In addition to booster performance, the test vehicle will also be used to validate safe separation and controllability of the missile away from the carrier B-52H, through ignition and boost phase, all the way up to separation of a simulated glide vehicle.

According to the Air Force, the 412th Test Wing will conduct the ARRW BTF series over the Point Mugu Sea Range in California.

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.