US Air Force tests its first fully functional hypersonic missile

I used to be a missileer like you, then I took an ARRW in the knee

The US Air Force says it has successfully tested its first fully equipped prototype hypersonic missile.

Progress of the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) was held up earlier this year due to a series of failed trial runs, though the Air Force says things went as planned when it launched one from under the wing of a B-52H Stratofortress at the end of last week.

"Following the ARRW's separation from the aircraft, it reached hypersonic speeds greater than five times the speed of sound, completed its flight path and detonated in the terminal area. Indications show that all objectives were met," the Air Force said in a statement.

The Air Force describes ARRW as being designed to strike well-defended, fixed-location, and time-sensitive targets in contested environments, a task that hypersonic weapons are particularly well suited for.

A new meaning of 'fast'

Hypersonic weapons aren't new, but they are still largely experimental. The US has been accused of falling behind Russia and China in development of the Mach 5+ missiles. DARPA, American military branches, and private US arms manufacturers have all been working on their own weapons, mind you.

Hypersonic weapons are classified as any missile capable of traveling faster than five times the speed of sound (3,836mph/6,174kph), while maintaining the ability to be steered. 

DARPA's hypersonic air-breathing weapon concept (HAWC) has also been under development, and successful tests this past April spurred the defense department's research arm to declare hypersonic weapons were ready for real-world use. 

That was roughly the same time the ARRW program was put on hold, causing the program to miss its "early operational capability" deadline of September 30, pushing it instead into ARRW developer Lockheed Martin's next fiscal year, which began October 1.

As opposed to the air-intaking cruise missile design of the HAWC, ARRW opts for a boost-glide system, which uses a rocket booster to get up to speed before releasing a gliding warhead. To avoid being an easy target, the gliding warhead is able to adjust its course and glides at a flatter trajectory, eliminating an easily-predicted arc.

The DoD and Lockheed Martin have been unsurprisingly tight-lipped about ARRW's capabilities or payload, only saying that it achieved hypersonic speeds and managed to hit its target. If DARPA's previous attempts at building a hypersonic, rocket-launched glider are any indicator of ARRW's abilities, it's probably capable of far more than Mach 5.

The Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), also built by Lockheed Martin, was "an unmanned, rocket-launched, maneuverable aircraft that glides through the Earth's atmosphere at incredibly fast speeds," DARPA said. 

Able to reach Mach 20 - around 13,000 mph or 20,900 kph - HTV-2 could travel from New York to Los Angeles in less than 12 minutes, DARPA said. HTV-2 was only flown twice in the early 2010s, and DARPA announced no plans to fly the craft again, though it did say the data gathered by the tests would be used in future hypersonic designs, meaning its tech could very well be part of ARRW.

The US military's ultimate goal with a hypersonic weapon is to be able to deliver a payload anywhere in the world in less than an hour. ®

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