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DARPA says US hypersonic missile is ready for real world

A new arms race emerges

DARPA announced a second successful test of its hypersonic cruise missile, adding that the weapon, capable of speeds in excess of Mach 5, is ready for real-world use. 

DARPA has been testing hypersonic weapons for several years. The program in question, called the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), began in 2016 with Raytheon as a partner. Raytheon's HAWC first flew in 2021, and this latest test used a design manufactured by Lockheed Martin and Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Hypersonic weapons are any missile that travels at Mach 5 or faster, but with an added caveat: they can be controlled. Traditional missiles often exceed Mach 5 as well, but can't be steered once they're launched. 

Both of the HAWCs that DARPA tested were considered cruise missiles because they include air-breathing engines like jet aircraft. This test, which DARPA didn't specify a date, target or parameters for, traveled for more than 300 nautical miles at an altitude over 65,000 feet (twice the height of a commercial airline flight). Andrew "Tippy" Knoedler, HAWC project manager at DARPA, said that this second flight, with a completely different design, means the concept is ready for the battlefield. 

"These achievements increase the level of technical maturity for transitioning HAWC to a service program of record … We are still analyzing flight test data, but are confident that we will provide the US Air Force and Navy with excellent options to diversify the technology available for their future missions," Knoedler said.

Hypersonics increasingly on the world stage

DARPA's announcement was followed a day later by news that the US, UK and Australia have partnered to develop hypersonic weapons. US military leaders have said Russia used multiple hypersonic missiles in Ukraine, and the Russian military has made additional claims that it has hypersonic missiles capable of traveling 27 times the speed of sound, as well as a Mach 10 missile with a 1,250-mile range.

China quickly responded to the partnership announcement, saying that jointly-developed hypersonic weapons could trigger conflict in the APAC region. China is also said to be developing its own hypersonic weapons. 

Along with their long range, target-avoidance and uncatchable speeds, hypersonic weapons could also deliver devastation without a payload, given enough speed and mass. Research done into hypersonic kinetic impact missiles found that, if DARPA could get its maximum designed 5,500 kg payload onto its rocket and get it up to Mach 20, it could release the equivalent of 31 tons of TNT.

While this may not seem a lot in the nuclear age, "its effects still would far exceed present conventional capabilities," said USSOCOM CWMD analyst Daniel Sproull. ®

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